September 19, 2014 by Jools Stone
Gosh, it has been a long time since I last posted here hasn’t it?! This past year I’ve been busy working away on our Railway Stays site and have deliberated over whether or not to quietly retire this trusty old loco into the railway publishing sidings… but since we now have another epic rail trip in the offing, I thought I would give it a long overdue revival!
Next month we’re off to the US of A on our All-American Amtrak Adventure, crossing the land of the free twice on five of the country’s classic train routes, including the Lake Shore, the Crescent, the Coast Starlight, the California Zephyr and the Sunset Limited. You can read more about the trip in this blog post, but today I thought I would muse a little on the plight of the Sunset Limited, one of Amtrak’s more troubled long distance trains.
The Sunset is actually ‘America’s oldest train.’ It’s been using the name continuously since it was first launched back in 1894. So it seems a real shame that it’s been sadly truncated in the past decade. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit, devastating the route and causing massive destruction to the tracks. This put paid to the eastern stretch of the service between New Orleans, the Florida Panhandle and it’s Atlantic Ocean terminus in Jacksonville.
What I hadn’t realised until recently though is that in fact the tracks were repaired fairly swiftly and that freight operators have been using them ever since. Despite this, Amtrak have not expressed any intention to restore the full route, citing historically low ridership on the eastern section and sparse population in the region. Ultimately it boils down to money.
Some even feel that they used Katrina as a convenient excuse to shelve the service and that they were already planning to abandon it a year before it struck. Some have also questioned Amtrak’s ridership stats for the route (which claims 96,000 riders in 2004, only 37,000 going east of NOLA, compared with the Empire Builder’s 554,000) and indeed there was even talk of upping the service from 3 to 4 times a week just a year before Katrina rolled in.
Since Amtrak has now washed its hands of it, the line’s best chance of revival lies with the states it used to serve who would have to fund it themselves, which seems pretty unlikely at the moment, although policy makers in Alabama have been rallying for it in recent years.
The arguments surrounding the responsibility for funding national railways are naturally complicated and politically-charged – especially in America, where and any sort of national, publicly funded rail service is seen as an anachronistic indulgence by those on the right – so I won’t attempt to address them here, but from an international rail tourism perspective alone it does seem a great shame and a lost opportunity.
Cutting off the route at New Orleans means that it’s no longer possible to travel from one ocean to the other by train for example. This was something we had long dreamed of doing, ever since reading Jenny Diski’s excellent travelogue book, Strangers on a Train.
It would be so wonderful to connect from the Palmetto service, which stretches from New York down to Florida, and continue our journey across country in one big loop, but alas it’s not to be, at least not for this trip.
Of course we’re still very much looking forward to experiencing the 2 night journey on the Sunset between NOLA and Los Angeles, among others. Still we hope that somebody saves the full route eventually and restores America’s only trans-continental train service.
Maybe even a private, luxury rail operator could plug the gap somehow, though of course this won’t help domestic rail travellers who simply want a good value alternative to flying or driving across the south?
Although rail travel in the US is far from cheap and long haul services are often subject to lengthy delays, long distance routes like the Sunset can still provide reasonable value for tourists, especially if you’re happy to ‘rough it a bit’ and sleep in your coach seat (which is comparable in size and comfort to a business class seat found on many planes).
As an example, you can get a one way ticket from New Orleans all the way to LA from around $160 – and that’s for a 46 hour journey across a distance of nearly 2,000 miles, all for a hundred quid!
Europe is rightly praised internationally for its enviable rail network and services, but even here recently there have been plans to abandon numerous night train services, including City Night Line’s sleeper trains between from Copenhagen to Basle/Amsterdam/Prague, and Paris to Hamburg/Berlin/Munich.
So if you value these routes, or even just the idea of being able to make use of them one fine day, please do make sure you sign the petition (linked to to in that Guardian article above) to keep them running.
What do you think, can you see any hope for restoring the Sunset to its former glory as a trans-continental service? Here’s hoping…
‘Hi Impact Radius’