Whither Amtrak's Western Long Hauls?

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, July 15, 2018

(Amtrak's eastbound "Desert Wind" in California's Cajon Pass, 1989.  George W. Hamlin photo)

As discussed in a previous post (“Corridors and Long Hauls, Continued”, posted June 1, 2018; it is my belief that long-haul passenger services in the U.S. work most effectively when they can be integrated with short/medium-haul corridors.

More recently, (July 1, 2018, “The Great Plains and the Great Basin: a Great Problem”, I’ve indicated that I don’t believe that this type of integration is possible for most of  Amtrak’s western long-haul trains, with the exception of the Coast Starlight, which is integrated into several existing corridor services (Cascades, Capitol and Pacific Surfliner)  and the Texas Eagle, which currently traverses the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, and what could become an intra-Texas corridor between Dallas and Austin/San Antonio.

This leaves four other long-haul Amtrak Services in the west: from north to south, the Empire Builder; California Zephyr; Southwest Chief; and the Sunset Limited.  Let’s make it clear at the outset of this discussion that, while service to smaller points without access to other public/common-carriage transportation service is desirable, these points alone cannot generate enough traffic to warrant long-haul rail passenger service on their own; including significant population centers will be critical to the economic underpinning of any future services of this kind. 

With this in mind, continuing to operate the Sunset and Builder could prove to be difficult to justify, at least the portions of their routes west of San Antonio and Minneapolis/St. Paul, respectively.  The only large cities in this territory on either route are El Paso, Tucson, and Spokane; the latter is within corridor-distance (326 miles) of Seattle. 

We’ve discussed the Chief and its route in several contexts previously (including comments on the original posts).  The crux of the problem here, besides only modest population between Kansas City and Albuquerque, is that this is the only train of any kind operating currently on a significant portion of its route, causing its operating economics to become essentially impossible unless some entity steps in to subsidize it.

The obvious solution here is to re-route the train via the BNSF’s “Transcon” route used by the railroad’s freight trains; apparently the BNSF is open to this possibility.  This would have the advantage of adding Amarillo, Texas to Amtrak’s system; it might also be possible to operate via Wichita, Kansas, which is not served now.  Service to points in western Kansas and Colorado being provided currently would be eliminated using this alternative, but other points on the Transcon in addition to Amarillo could be added to the network.

From my perspective, an obvious way to provide at least a minimal western route system to connect the corridors in the Midwest with those in the Pacific Coast states would be to funnel traffic between Chicago and Denver, and add service from there to both Los Angeles and Portland/Seattle in addition to the current operation to the San Francisco Bay area (anyone remember the Desert Wind and the Pioneer?).  Assuming that the Empire Builder continued to operate, it would be possible to eliminate that train’s Portland section, since the Rose City could be served via connections at Seattle.

Since concentrating traffic for three different west coast locations (southern and northern California, and the Pacific Northwest) might overload the Chicago Denver segment, it might also be possible to operate between Chicago, Kansas City and Denver (with or without the Chief) feeding into what would become Amtrak’s Denver hub.

I’m not going to attempt to specify the routings for the new Denver-west services.  There are alternatives that need to be considered; for example, if Chicago/Kansas City-Denver is included, the western Kansas stations currently on the Amtrak route map might remain.  In the event the Pioneer’s route returns to service, I suspect that the addition of Las Vegas, Nevada, would be welcomed by many potential Amtrak travelers.  It’s also possible that the split should take place in Salt Lake City.

None of this will occur, however, unless the economics work, in terms of traffic and costs.  This will need to be evaluated carefully, although utilizing either Denver or Salt Lake City as a hub might stimulate new/additional traffic, which could improve the potential results.

It will be interesting to see if such possibilities are considered, and, whether or not they are justified, absent significant subsidies.

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