A proposal from a Texas congressman could hinder the only passenger rail service that serves Tucson.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a transportation and housing programs bill more than a week ago, which includes an amendment from U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, to eliminate funding for the Amtrak route that suffers the biggest financial losses.
That would be the Sunset Limited, which passes through Tucson three times a week, shuttling passengers westward to Los Angeles and eastbound to New Orleans.
The Sunset Limited is combined with the Texas Eagle line that runs between Los Angeles and Chicago. When heading west, passenger cars from both lines are connected in San Antonio and the train travels through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Heading east, the Texas Eagle cars are disconnected from Sunset Limited in San Antonio and the train continues on to New Orleans.
That means Sessions’ proposal would eliminate passenger train service east of San Antonio.
“The Sunset Limited — which runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles — costs the American taxpayer $396.31 per rider, more than any other route in the United States,” Sessions said in a news release. “In total, the Sunset Limited loses an average of over $40 million a year.”
Although Tucson would still receive passenger service through the Texas Eagle component, the proposed cuts to Sunset Limited could ultimately lead to that route’s demise as well, said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
“When you start chopping it and making these decisions without regards to how people use the network, there are a lot of unintended consequences,” Jeans-Gail said. “It doesn’t take into effect the important role routes play in building one another.”
Jeans-Gail said Amtrak would lose more revenue because of the passengers’ inability to transfer to other routes.
The Texas Eagle would lose revenue because it wouldn’t include those passenger cars — and passengers — from the Sunset Limited route when the two lines connect in San Antonio.
About 100,000 passengers rode the Sunset Limited in 2013, a substantial increase from the 62,000 in 2007, according to the association.
The association’s data showed 25,416 passengers caught the train at Tucson’s Amtrak station last year, more than double the amount of passengers from 2007.
So, if the Sunset Limited is losing money, is there a way to make it profitable?
According to Jeans-Gail, there is.
“If the Sunset Limited ran daily, performance would be a lot stronger,” he said.
Jeans-Gail pointed to Amtrak’s profitable Northeast Corridor service, which serves all of the major cities between Washington, D.C., and Boston, as an example of what happens when you increase service.
“There’s a lot of service, a lot of options and it’s making a profit,” he said.
The U.S. Senate will now craft its own version of the bill before leaders of both branches get together for a conference committee.
Train riders in Tucson ought to hope the Senate can wipe out Sessions’ amendment before a final bill is passed.
“If I was a resident of Tucson who relied on the train, I’d be very worried,” Jeans-Gail said.
Tucsonans anxious for the streetcar to start now know how much they will have to fork over to hop a ride along the 3.9-mile route. The Tucson City Council voted last week to peg streetcar fares to current bus fares.
That means a single streetcar ride will cost $1.50, while a daily pass will run $3.50 when the trolley starts rumbling through downtown July 25.
Other fares, such as the low-income fare, monthly passes and University of Arizona student passes, also will reflect current bus fares.