U.S., Amtrak: How can America get to Phoenix again by train?

By Russ Jackson, Guest Commentator, with Anthony Lee, Richard Strandberg, and William Lindley; October 7, 2022

It’s now been 27 years since passenger service directly into Phoenix, Arizona existed. Why has it been so hard to get it back? The main obstacle has been money, of course.  When the October 1995 accident happened that derailed the Sunset Limited 60 miles west of Phoenixa case that the FBI has not solved, it took out the line then owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad and it has remained so despite many plans to rebuild it. Phoenix, one of the largest cities in the U.S., is served only by the tri-weekly Sunset Limited which requires an average of 30 miles road travel for a yearly average of only 12,000 riders to reach Maricopa.  

The highly criticized $66 billion money that Amtrak has been given by the Congress is likely to be spent on its Northeast Corridor and on convincing states to buy into short distance trains serving their metro areas which they would have to pay for after five years. It’s called the ConnectUS plan.  

Studies, studies, and more studies will ensue that will eat up that money quickly and it’s unlikely to result in more than a handful of trains actually running when there are inter-city routes that will provide real travel opportunities and revenue that they could spend that money financing. Is there a way to return passenger service to Phoenix? Yes. Here’s the list and thanks to Arizona Department of Transportation for the map!

Map provided by Arizona Department of Transportation.

1) Rebuild Wellton-downtown Phoenix. The current owner is the Union Pacific Railroad, who have shown zero interest in rebuilding because they “don’t need it” and want “others” to do so. That means Amtrak or the State of Arizona, neither of whom will take on that job alone. It could be done, but who would run the train? Would it be a reroute of the Sunset Limited? Would Amtrak make the train daily? Would it abandon Maricopa, the current nearest stop to Phoenix and the fastest growing part of the state?

2) Abandon Wellton-Buckeye. Tucson’s Richard Strandberg advocates building a new railroad from Gila Bend north parallel to State Road 85 to join the right-of-way at Buckeye. This short distance would mean lower maintenance costs for the Union Pacific, but it would be very expensive to acquire the route and build it. That could be done, but is unlikely, and would take maybe ten years to accomplish. Let’s go back to the early 1990s again, to a trip I took from Los Angeles to Tucson. I was at Los Angeles Union Station waiting for the departure of the Sunset Limited, having arrived on a San Diegan. The overnight trip would get me to Tucson at around 10 the next morning, duplicating trips I had taken in the early 1960s. My parents would meet me.

All of a sudden the station public address system announced that the train would “Enter Phoenix on the Santa Fe Railroad” because of a freight train derailment just east of Yuma. I was excited because it meant “new mileage” for me to enjoy. The train left LAUS on time, went up Cajon Pass to Barstow and on to Cadiz. It then diverted onto the AT&SF line to Parker (and a two hour freight interference delay), Wickenburg and Phoenix, then on the Southern Pacific route where it was after 4:00 when I reached Tucson.

3) There’s another way to get to Phoenix from California, and that experience proves it. It already exists. Recently William Lindley told us that back in the 90s after the loss of the Wellton-Phoenix line that he, the late Rob Bohanan, the President of the Arizona Rail Passenger Association, and others met with Amtrak West President Gil Mallery about a new service from Phoenix to Los Angeles via Parker and Barstow. Mallery was an unique Amtrak manager who was looking for new opportunities. Unfortunately, Mallery left Amtrak before plans like this one could get off the ground, as the Washington, D.C. management regime in power at the time was not looking for new opportunities.  

Parker, Arizona; headquarters of the Arizona & California Railroad. William Lindley photo.

Here’s a potential schedule example: Depart Tucson at 5 AM, Phoenix after 7, Parker about 10 (Now the Class 3 Arizona & California Railroad, former Santa Fe), Barstow around 1 PST, arrive LAUS at 5. The Union Pacific would be used only from Tucson to Phoenix, then it would be on the Arizona and California to Cadiz, and the BNSF to Los Angeles. If the opposite direction train originated in Los Angeles at the same time it would reach Tucson at about 6 PM to layover to the next morning. Platforms would be built at the small stations. A crew base would be needed at Barstow. A layover track would be required at the Tucson station, or at the Phoenix station if the extension to Tucson was not included and/or the UP refused access. But if Tucson was included, it would be the beginning of “Arizona Rail” service, with a morning train north and afternoon south.

Coolidge, Arizona. Russ Jackson photo.
  • Coolidge, where the Amtrak platform is still there. Pinal County is one of the fastest growing areas in Arizona
Tempe, Arizona with the last Sunset Limited arriving. Lindley family photo.
  • Tempe-Mesa-ASU station is still there
Phoenix Union Station in 2010. Not much has changed since this photo was taken. Marc Pearsall photo.
  • Phoenix Union Station in downtown is still there. It should be staffed in conjunction with Maricopa personnel  
  • Glendale which would be the western transfer point from Metro light rail to this intercity train
  • Surprise or Sun City, serving the retirement communities and west valley’s fast growing development
Former Santa Fe Railway station at Wickenburg, Arizona in 2017. Richard Strandberg photo.
  • Wickenburg, the gateway to northern Arizona
  • Salome, a very small town but reachable from Quartzite and Blythe via US 60, a flag stop
  • Parker, on the Colorado River, reachable to Lake Havasu and Laughlin casinos
  • Cadiz, California, probably not a stop but where the Arizona & California Railroad joins the BNSF Transcon  
  • Barstow, already a stop for the Southwest Chief, 3 hours and 40 minutes from Los Angeles. 
  • Victorville, giving  the high desert second daily train service to San Bernadino, Riverside
  • Fullerton, and its connections to San Diego before reaching Los Angeles Union Station
Barstow, California. Russ Jackson photo.

California could originate a San Joaquin train at Barstow, going to Bakersfield and up the Valley. Or, at least have Bakersfield Thruway buses meet the train at Barstow. There are buses on that route now, which go to Las Vegas. California has the equipment. Would it have to take five years to get this going? Probably.

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