I have a hard time figuring out the people in Congress who have it in for Amtrak. What is it that drives them? Ideology? Spite? Ignorance? Stupidity? Maybe even all of the above? Why, for instance, would a Congressman from Texas introduce a bill that would kill a long-distance train that crosses the entire width of his own state?
Whatever motivated him, that’s exactly what Republican Congressman Pete Sessions has done. Of course, it should be noted that the train does not go through his district.
The bill Sessions has introduced would require Amtrak to shut down whichever of their long-distance trains is losing the most money per passenger. Of course we all know that he’s really talking about the Sunset Limited, which runs three days a week in each direction between Los Angeles and New Orleans. And, yes, it’s quite true that on paper the Sunset Limited loses a lot of money. But there’s much more to that than meets the eye.
First, as noted, the train only runs three days a week, which means it’s often inconvenient to book and that has a negative effect on ridership. (There has been agitation for years to have the Sunset operate as a daily train, but so far, because of opposition from the Union Pacific railroad — they own the tracks, you see — that hasn’t happened.)
Second, the Sunset’s route originally extended beyond New Orleans all the way to Florida, but that segment of some 650 miles was discontinued following Hurricane Katrina and, despite pressure from NARP and communities along the abandoned portion of the route, neither the service nor the revenue it generated has been restored.
Third, three days a week, the Sunset Limited connects in San Antonio with the daily Texas Eagle, which operates between Chicago and L.A. The two trains operate as one long consist between San Antonio and the West Coast. And here’s the thing: all the revenue generated between San Antonio and L.A. for the combined train is credited to the Eagle. Don’t ask me why … that’s just the way the Amtrak Accounting Department does it. But it sure as hell explains why the Sunset Limited appears to be losing a lot of money!
Does Congressman Sessions know this? Of course he does!
Does Congressman Sessions know that the Sunset is really necessary public transportation for the more than 80 percent of the train’s passengers who are traveling to or from one of the intermediate stops along the route? Of course he does!
And what advice does the congressman have for those folks who would no longer be able to take the Sunset Limited to where they want to go? “Take a plane”, he says.
Does Congressman Sessions know that the airlines have cut back drastically on flights to and from small towns and cities all across the West? And does he know that air fares for those remaining flights have increased dramatically? And does he know that most of the flights still operating are heavily subsidized by the federal government? Of course he does!
The National Association of Railroad Passengers
(NARP) is preparing a white paper that explains in detail the importance of the Sunset Limited and what can be done to increase its ridership and dramatically improve its service. Once it has been sent to key members of Congress and their staff people, it will be released to the general public and posted on the NARP web site. I’ll have a link for you here, of course.