By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; August 25, 2021
Many parts of the long, modern saga of the Amtrak Superliner Sunset Limited for the past quarter of a century are well known, but there are some details which may answer questions for some people.
In the 1990s Amtrak underwent yet another of a long series of internal corporate reorganizations, including the creation of the long distance/inter-regional routes business group model.
One of the business units created was the Gulf Coast Business Group based in New Orleans. Three trains – which senior management had internally labeled as “problem children” – were included: the Sunset Limited, City of New Orleans and Crescent.
The Gulf Coast Business Group was the only business group which stretched literally from coast to coast east to west and from the Gulf Coast in New Orleans due north to Chicago. Endpoint terminals included Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, Miami and New York City, covering every time zone in the Lower 48 states.
From its earliest days, the Sunset was a Los Angeles – New Orleans train. It did carry a through-car in conjunction with Southern Railway’s Crescent, allowing Los Angeles-New Orleans-Washington-New York City service for sleeping car passengers.
In April of 1993 – to the unhappiness of many of Amtrak’s entrenched senior bureaucrats – the Sunset was extended from New Orleans to Miami. The first train out of Los Angeles Union Station to Miami was a positioning run, ahead of the “official” inaugural run. Most of us on that train were invited by Amtrak to be passengers – that was when Amtrak was still interested in the huge amount of business generated through travel agencies – and we departed Los Angeles on a Sunday night with an on-time departure. The “missing link” between Mobile, Alabama and Jacksonville, Florida now filled by the Sunset was one of the most requested Amtrak routes by the traveling public according to those working on the extension.
We progressed eastward, calling at Phoenix, had an early morning station stop in San Antonio where the Texas Eagle through-cars were cut out of the consist, proceeded to Houston and then around Beaumont, Texas were stalled by a grade crossing accident. Once that was cleared up the train – now significantly tardy – proceeded over the breathtaking Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River and into New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal.
At NOUPT a maintenance crew worked diligently and finally cleared a clogged Superliner toilet and the Sunset was released to continue to Miami. At New Orleans the original Los Angeles onboard services crew ended their run – this was on Tuesday night – and a fresh OBS crew took over for the run to Miami.
From Flomaton, Alabama east into Pensacola, Florida and then into Jacksonville all of the former Louisville & Nashville Railroad and former Seaboard Air Line Railroad track had been rehabilitated and rebuilt to passenger train standards.
The stretch of track between Chattahooche, Florida and Flomaton had been allowed by the L&N – due to a lack of maintenance funding – to deteriorate to a point where slow speed derailments were a common occurrence. Family Lines, Seaboard System and CSX used the line mostly for overflow traffic and not mainline track. Also, it was dark territory – non-signaled – and slow running under any conditions.
Millions were poured into the line to upgrade it for the newly-arriving Sunset, but it was never signaled. This was years prior to the Positive Train Control/PTC mandates.
United Rail Passenger Alliance’s Dr. Adrian Herzog was along on that run and everything in that huge and genius brain of his boiled down to math. Sitting in the Sightseer Lounge car Dr. Herzog began noticing mileposts whizzing by at an unusually high rate of speed. He started timing the mileposts and quickly (but quietly) came to the conclusion the Sunset was hurtling down the track eastward at a speed of somewhere around 100 mph. One of the “passengers” on the train in the Sightseer Lounge was the CSX Roadmaster and he had apparently given the locomotive engineer permission to “test” his new railroad and see how it performed at high speed.
The Sunset arrived in Miami late Wednesday night, hours behind schedule. The “official” VIP-packed inaugural train followed and had the usual festivities.
On September 22, 1993, late night/early morning east of Mobile, Alabama three of the Sunset’s eastbound locomotives and six of the eight passenger cars derailed because of unknown damage done to a bayou bridge by an errant tugboat and barge striking the bridge on a foggy night. The train plunged into Big Bayou Canot and 47 crew and passengers perished. A permanent monument to the event was placed on the westbound entrance to the bridge along with a brass memorial plaque in the elevator lobby of NOUPT.
Two years later in October of 1995 the Sunset derailed near Harque, Arizona because saboteurs removed 29 track spikes and short-circuited the signal system to conceal the sabotage. Dozens of crew and passengers were hurt and one person lost their life.
In November of 1996 a wise decision was made to truncate the Sunset in Central Florida in Sanford (although Orlando was better; more on that below).
At that time, south of Jacksonville, the Sunset was the fourth train to serve Jacksonville-Miami along with the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Silver Palm offering daily service and the Sunset only tri-weekly.
Looking at ridership/load factor numbers, it was determined once the Orlando/Walt Disney World/SeaWorld/Universal Studios passengers detrained, the Sunset ran virtually empty down to Miami and the Hialeah coach yard. The traffic in either direction south of Orlando simply wasn’t there for the Sunset and coupled with difficulty maintaining schedules into Florida from the west, the Sunset south of Orlando was an unnecessary expense.
Travel agents and Amtrak ticket agents figured out that Winter Park, adjoining Orlando to the north, was the ideal transfer point for passengers from the Florida Silver Service trains to the Sunset. Many also transferred in Jacksonville, but sitting in the vanilla Jacksonville station versus having the freedom of the Amtrak station in downtown Winter Park – in the middle of an actual delightful park – made Winter Park the ideal and happy transfer point.
Through all of this, until the service was “suspended” after Hurricane Katrina, the Sunset had a decent feeder system with the Florida Service trains, both at Jacksonville and Winter Park. Passengers from south of Washington heading west rode the Florida trains and then connected with the Sunset. The same was true in reverse. It was a surprising amount of connecting business, further proving the point of how success through the matrix theory can be accomplished.
Auto Train was a major reason to terminate the Sunset in Sanford. Being the Auto Train southern terminal and major maintenance facility and also a Superliner route, the Sunset was well-taken-care-of by Auto Train maintenance forces. At the Miami/Hialeah coach yard, only single-level trains were maintained; the Sunset’s Superliners were oddballs there.
When the opportunity arose, Sanford became the Sunset’s primary maintenance base since it sat for a longer period of time there than in Los Angeles, the traditional maintenance base. The head of maintenance in Sanford was ferocious when it came to a sparking clean train, and the interior cleanliness – through routine, deeper cleaning than had been previously performed in Los Angeles – of the Sunset and routine maintenance on small but critical elements improved greatly.
By the time the route was shortened to Sanford, a change had been made for the OBS crews and the decision was made for crews to work all the way from Los Angeles – their crew base – to Sanford instead of changing crews in New Orleans. Many crew members preferred this because they made two trips a month versus four trips a month made on other routes while still maintaining their fully-contracted hours.
There was one downside to this change. Dining cars are changed out of consists more often than other cars for a higher level of cleaning. This was done in Sanford, so occasionally for dining car staff arriving in Sanford they had to completely pack up the kitchen and upstairs serving area so a new diner could be substituted in Sanford, which also meant when returned to the train for the westbound run they had a “cold car” which had to be completely set up again instead of a diner which simply would have been shut down for a normal terminal turn.
While the OBS crews enjoyed their turn downtime in Central Florida passengers were less than thrilled. Amtrak made the mistake in timetables of listing the Sunset’s eastern terminal as Sanford with a small emphasis on Orlando, the true major destination. Even though a Thruway bus connection was available for all passengers into Orlando and the resort area, passengers were not impressed. This resulted in a lower load factor because passengers wanted a single-seat ride to their destination, not a two-seat ride which included a bus.
In June of 1996 Phoenix Union Station closed, ending passenger train service to that major city. Phoenix is located on a Union Pacific Railroad (former Southern Pacific) bypass line; the main line passes to the south through Maricopa, Arizona.
The decision to leave Phoenix was not a willing decision by Amtrak. Union Pacific had told Amtrak if it wished to continue to serve Phoenix that a payment in excess of $30 million would be required to keep the bypass track up to passenger train standards and following that would be ongoing maintenance costs. UP was only lightly using the line for freight trains and the tri-weekly Sunset/Texas Eagle combination was the primary tenant on the line. Pay up or leave was the message.
Gulf Coast Business Group management was not pleased; it was impossible to dedicate such a huge amount of money for a tri-weekly train at a single station stop, even if it was for a major city. Internal meetings were held in New Orleans; discussions were robust to figure out a way to reasonably serve the Phoenix metropolitan area. The Sunset’s Product Line Director spent days working on a viable solution; the results were any good solutions were out of the realm of budget reality.
Nobody but the Union Pacific Railroad was happy about leaving Phoenix. After the switch to Maricopa, Phoenix area ridership dropped like as rock as passengers were unwilling to drive a long distance through an empty desert to reach a “train station” which wasn’t more than a platform on the side of the tracks.
Also in 1996 was the meltdown of the Sunset Route between Los Angeles and New Orleans over the former Southern Pacific main line. That was the year Union Pacific gobbled up the financially-crippled Southern Pacific and proceeded almost immediately to rid the company of former Southern Pacific operations and frontline managers and replace them with “superior” Union Pacific managers and operating practices.
The hubris of Union Pacific caused complete chaos throughout the former SP system and much of the UP system. Gridlock is a kind way of describing things. UP’s “superior” managers forgot one basic principle: Southern Pacific managers had been holding their shuddering railroad together for years with bailing wire and bubble gum with liberal applications of duct tape. The entire system was fragile and could not physically take the shock to the system imposed by untested-on-the-SP changes UP unilaterally implemented by decree.
UP’s arrogance spilled over to frustrate CSX which hosted the Sunset east of New Orleans. Westbound, Sunset’s originating in Florida were handed to UP after arrival at NOUPT on a timely basis. After that, it was anybody’s guess what would happen to timekeeping. Eastbound, UP delivered the Sunset to NOUPT continually on such a late basis CSX could not rely on any schedule and had to “make it up as they went” to get the train over their railroad with schedules out of sync by multiple hours. CSX and the Sunset were victimized by the UP.
The results for the Sunset’s crews and passengers were trains up to 15 hours late on a typical day. Crew overtime soared through the roof; providing service recovery through hotel rooms and substituted flights for passengers completely wrecked the budget by millions of dollars. The Sunset’s reputation sunk.
During that period Amtrak was in the “service recovery” mindset such as if a train was late over a certain timeframe, then free food was offered in the dining car to hungry passengers in special seatings. Canned stew and Chicken Cordon Bleu were the two most frequent offerings and they both proved that passengers fed even previously frozen or canned food are happier passengers than those not fed.
To help passengers understand what it meant to ride the Sunset during this dark period a special “Sunset Limited Coast to Coast Adventure” program was established with materials explaining what to expect on a very late train and things to do to alleviate stress. Included were recommendations such as not making same-day train connections or attending same-day events such as a wedding when arriving at destinations. Other materials promoted the dining and lounge cars and some onboard activities.
Circa 1996, Amtrak’s marketing department did some passenger/customer satisfaction survey work directly related to the Sunset Limited. Some were astonished at the results; turned out typical Sunset Limited passengers in sleeping cars had attained very high levels of education including extensive post graduate and doctorate work and many were financially successful, often carrying (at the time) the highest offered level of American Express cards. The notion of “just ordinary people” as train riders was completely shown as false.
It’s notable Sunset sleeping car attendants who worked hard at their jobs were earning sometimes as much as $800 in tips on a single round trip. Good service was rewarded.
The café in the lower level of the Sightseer Lounge car also typically on any given round trip did a boffo business even as the dining car was open to all passengers. The single lounge lead service attendant earned his/her money certainly with plenty of hard work, but the company prospered even more so with the amount of product sold.
At one point when a new dining car menu was put into use there were 12 entrees on the menu with full offerings of appetizers, side dishes and desserts. When there was a full train in the summer or holiday months and the train was west of San Antonio when the Texas Eagle cars were part of the consist, it was not unusual for the 72 seat dining car to serve 400+ meals during the dinner seatings.
In October of 1997, 11 months after the decision to terminate the Sunset in Sanford, sanity prevailed and the train was extended to Orlando. After passengers detrained in Orlando the consist deadheaded west to a nearby CSX wye where it was turned and continued deadheading back to the Auto Train maintenance base in Sanford.
For the return trip to Los Angeles, OBS crews rejoined a cleaned and spiffed-up consist in Sanford, waiting for them just a platform over from Auto Train.
Orlando/Central Florida ridership improved as a result of this critical change as Amtrak timetables finally showed Orlando as the eastern terminal. This schedule stayed in place until the decades-long interruption of Hurricane Katrina.
In 1999 the 24-Hour diner experiment was introduced with about a half dozen test runs. The concept and experiment were successes, everyone from passengers to OBS crews liked the workability of the program and dining car revenues increased more than enough to justify the two extra crew members required with profits above that.
Sometime in 2000, the Sunset was moved from the Gulf Coast Business Group to a new group formed for the Sunset and Texas Eagle. The new business group under traditional Amtrak management discontinued the dining car experiments for the simple reason of “not invented here.” There was an effort to convince the new management of the merits of the program, but management was too grounded in “traditional Amtrak ways” of doing things.
Early in 1999 the Gulf Coast Business Group commissioned the formation of the Sunset Limited and City of New Orleans Promotional Office with the goal of augmenting the work coming from Amtrak’s national marketing department. The Promotional Office addressed a number of things which required local attention on several levels as well as making contact with local businesses which may be interested in joint promotions with the Sunset. New station openings were also part of the effort, such as the opening for the new station built in San Antonio.
Leading up to Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, the Sunset was mistreated by Amtrak after the change to the new business group took place. CSX at that time was flexing its maintenance muscles doing “maintenance blitzes” on trackage east of New Orleans. This would shut the railroad down for days at a time and Amtrak being Amtrak, refused to offer “alternative transportation” to passengers.
Other things conspired against the Sunset besides CSX maintenance blitzes, and entrenched Amtrak management got their revenge for being forced to inaugurate the train in 1993 with constant suspensions of service east of New Orleans for the flimsiest of reasons. This naturally caused ridership/load factors to plummet with many current and would-be passengers simply abandoning the Sunset because of no dependability for service.
Then, it happened. Mother Nature gave a powerful gift to those Amtrak managers in the form of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane caused a horrific loss of life and property in and around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, including the Sunset Limited.
CSX tracks across the Gulf Coast and into the panhandle of Florida were destroyed as only a powerful, devastating storm can do.
But, something terrible happened for Amtrak. In less than a year CSX had brought its tracks and infrastructure back into pristine shape, ready for passenger trains. CSX simply cut through the red tape and put its crews to work, with amazing results.
A formal letter was sent to Amtrak by CSX announcing the track was back in service and CSX awaited Amtrak’s decision to restart service.
In a private communication, the chairman of Amtrak’s board, when asked why the Sunset remained suspended instead of reinstated replied that Amtrak management made the recommendation to the board to keep the train terminated in New Orleans and not restart service to Orlando.
Allegedly, Amtrak management cited the train’s poor financial performance east of New Orleans as the reason for the continuing suspension. Management’s evil plan worked; the train was so poorly operated prior to Hurricane Katrina with service suspensions for any number of reasons and no alternative transportation that the numbers they contrived worked in their favor. Management got the ultimate revenge and a train they never wanted in the first place was gone.
Amtrak propaganda put out all sorts of excuses for not reinstating the train such as the number of stations destroyed between New Orleans and Mobile. And, it’s true there were some stations badly damaged. But, stations such as the former 1950s L&N architectural nightmare in Mobile that was a barely functioning building and only minimally habitable for human occupancy needed to be gone.
Keep in mind in many locations – such as Maricopa mentioned above – a single platform and parking lot besides the tracks constitutes a “station.” Somehow, Amtrak thought such stations east of New Orleans were somehow unsuitable.
In short, the still-ongoing suspension of the Sunset was a snow job, squarely laid at the feet of Amtrak management and not CSX. CSX did their part and restored the track and was ready to honor its contract to host the train.
To this day, the service is still in suspension; never cancelled. By placing the service in perpetual suspension Amtrak has created a legal slight-of-hand avoiding having to go through a formal train off process which includes having the operate the train for a specific period of time and other requirements. Perhaps the saddest part of this nonsense is the Amtrak unions representing the OBS, train and engine crews and station agents – who have lost jobs – have all rolled over and have not made any noise about this nefarious process.
Since 2005 the federal laws regulating Amtrak have changed in several ways, but one thing has held true: the law still counts the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans as part of Amtrak’s long distance system and part of the national network, eligible for federal funding.
Several years after 2005 one of the Amtrak reauthorizations included a provision inserted by former Congresswoman Corrine Brown and others to mandate Amtrak must perform a comprehensive study to determine whether or not to reinstate the Sunset east of New Orleans.
Amtrak took the federal money to create the study and produced a document. Amtrak’s bottom line was a figure so enormous it was impossible to even consider.
Cooler heads wondered what all of the Amtrak fuss was about; the tracks at the time were in good shape, some local cities needs to repair their station buildings they owned, and it was believed most of the locomotives and Superliner equipment was still on the active equipment rosters.
Fast forward to 2016 and the Southern Rail Commission on the Gulf Coast sponsored to great acclaim a demonstration train between New Orleans and Florida in an effort to jumpstart new service.
Five years later there is still an effort to restore at least service between New Orleans and Mobile, with some bumps along the way.
In March of 2017 through an unwanted takeover, E. Hunter Harrison became the new CEO of CSX and immediately began implementation of the questionable Precision Scheduled Railroading model. He only lived until December of that same year, but the damage was done.
When CSX was nicely asked what it would take to restore the Sunset east of Mobile his minions came to a meeting and laid down a demand for $2 billion to bring the former Sunset line up to CSX standards to again host the train. No discussion was allowed; it was take it or leave it.
Two things had happened along the way: PTC was in the process of being implemented nationwide for any routes hosting passenger trains and/or trains hauling certain hazardous freight. And, the federal law had also been changed in Amtrak’s favor requiring prompt dispatching and delivery of Amtrak trains.
CSX claimed, because of the multiple drawbridges in the bayous east of Mobile (the same area where the Sunset had the horrific accident in 1993) and the right of maritime shipping to have precedence over trains on bridges for opening and closing for maritime passage, CSX would have to rebuild all of the infrastructure over the bayous high enough to avoid drawbridges to guarantee trains on schedule.
It was a “please go away” smokescreen.
Since that time CSX has sold the railroad from Pensacola east to Baldwin (Jacksonville) and the line is now operated as the Class III Florida Gulf & Atlantic Railroad. Much of the line remains without PTC.
Essentially, 28 years after the first Sunset trainset ventured east of New Orleans, things are back to where they were in the early 1990s. Track has not been maintained to passenger train speeds, there is no required signaling, many stations are gone or converted to other uses, and Florida’s panhandle is still as sparse for population as it was before. If new passenger train service was restored it would have to be robust enough through a good matrix system to overcome the huge stretches of wide open spaces which offer few if any passengers at intermediate station stops.
Amtrak’s old and shrinking Superliner inter-regional fleet is inadequate for adding new service. Superliner II cars are now approaching the same age as some of the Heritage fleet Amtrak inherited from the private railroads in 1971.
Yes, service can be restored, at a huge price. Yes, the track is there and the missing link between New Orleans and Jacksonville is something that needs attention.
The question is, with Amtrak almost exclusively focusing on short corridors for daytime trains as how it defines its future, does Amtrak really want this train, again? Can they be forced twice to accept a Sunset Limited east of New Orleans?