Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Sunset on the Sunset Limited?

Passenger rail service in the United States is a shadow of what it was during the golden age of railroading. As author James Howard Kunstler says, "America has a rail system the Bulgarians would be ashamed of." While his statement is a bit extreme, it is clear that the few routes makes travel by train difficult at best. As I have reported before on this blog, there are various reasons for this situation, not least are Amtrak's conflicting goals of profitability and nationwide service.
However, one particularly egregious gap in the Amtrak system is apparently the result of disrespect for the moral and legal obligations of good government. According to Amtrak, service on the Sunset Limited between New Orleans, Louisiana and Orlando, Florida, has been suspended due to damage resulting from Hurricane Katrina. While it is true that this storm was particularly devastating, the damage has long been repaired to the tracks.
New Orleans' Union Passenger Terminal

The Sunset Limited is a train which historically operated between New Orleans and Los Angeles. There were complimentary services connecting New Orleans to Florida, although for several periods, no service was available between the mouth of the Mississippi and Florida's Atlantic coast. This all changed when in April of 1993 Amtrak extended the Sunset Limited to Miami. The route was later trunkated to Orlando. This route became Amtrak's only transcontinental service. Without the Sunset Limited, passengers on America's east coast must travel to Washington or New York and then travel to Chicago before boarding a Pacific bound train. Only on the Sunset Limited was it possible to travel, without transferring, from Atlantic to Pacific.

Now, more than two years after Katrina, Amtrak still has not restored trains to Mobile and the Florida Panhandle. On August 26, 2005, all rail service into New Orleans was suspended due to the storm. Now, only the Sunset Limited's eastern leg remains to be restored. This denial of service only adds insult to injury for the recovering communities along the gulf coast. According to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, CSX, which owns the tracks, finished repairs along the corridor in April 2006. In fact, the tracks were in better condition at that time than they were before Katrina. Now, more than a year and a half later, passenger service is still halted. NARP claims that some 41% of passengers on the Sunset Limited began or ended their trip in the suspended section. Even so, Amtrak has not made any attempt to put the Sunset Limited back on the rails.

Since there is no logistical barrier to restoration of the full Sunset Limited, it seems that Amtrak has elected to permenantly discontinue this section of the route, if this is the case, Amtrak is breaking the law. Amtrak is legally required to give six months of notice before terminating service. Using a natural disaster to achieve policy objectives is not only in bad taste, it's just plain wrong. This service interruption puts an unfair and untenable burden on Amtrak passengers. Indeed, in this time of increased ridership, Amtrak should be increasing its rail routes, not cancelling them.

1 comment:

Seakip18 said...


Apparently, it takes a million dollars to get them to reconsider a route. Either way, things might be looking up for the sunset.