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Sunday Train: The New Gulf Wind, NOLA to Orlando

BruceMcF's picture

In this September's Trains magazine{+}, Bob Johnston looks at the history and current state of play of the eastern section of the Sunset Limited route, running from New Orleans through to, most of the time, Orlando Florida. This is a live topic since both houses have passed Amtrak funding bills, which are currently awaiting reconciliation, and both include language setting up a group to study re-establishing intercity rail service on the Gulf Coast.

This also ties into three issues previously examined on the Sunday Train. The Orlando terminus offers the possibility of connecting rail services, which include the Carolina services, some of which extend through to Florida, and also the planned Rapid Rail All Aboard Florida hourly daytime passenger services between Orlando and Miami. And the western connection ties this into the previous Congress-mandated study of upgrades to the existing Sunset Limited, which proposed to replace the current route by extending the Texas Eagle through to Los Angeles, connecting to a New Orleans corridor service at San Antonio.

{+: Note that online access to Trains! magazine is mostly paywalled for subscribers to the print edition.}

The On-Again, Off-Again, On-Again, Off-Again Amtrak Gulf Coast Route

The New Orleans to Orlando service was "suspended", about a decade ago, due to a bridge wash-out during Hurricane Katrina. The infrastructure damaged during Hurricane Katrina has been repaired, but the "suspended" status continues.

However, this was not the first suspension of service along this corridor, as Bob Johnston relates. At the time of the formation of Amtrak, when private railroads were relieved of their passenger service obligations in return for (ahem, "formally") granting corridor priority to Amtrak service, the Louisville and Nashville together with the Seaboard Coast Line were operating the Gulf Wind from Jacksonville to Orlando. However, Amtrak did not choose to include this service among its initial service offerings.

Service between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama was restored in 1984 for the Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans, but this state-supported corridor did not last through to 1986, due to a withdrawal of support from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Then in 1991 there was a congress-mandated study of establishing service, which found that the cheapest option in terms of Amtrak's operating budget was to extend the three-times-weekly Sunset Limited.

So, to great fanfare, Sunset Limited service from Los Angeles to Miami, Florida was inaugurated in 1993. The original schedule was :

  • New Orleans 11pm CT; Mobile 2am; Tallahassee 10:20am ET; Jacksonville 2:45pm; Orlando 5:50pm; Miami 11:10pm
  • Miami 1:30pm ET; Orlando 6:48pm; Jacksonville 10:30pm; Tallahassee 2:05am; Mobile 8:35am CT; New Orleans 11:55am

This service never would have got off the ground without being pushed by several key players on the railroad side, including both Amtrak and CSX, as well as the strong support of Florida governor Lawton Chiles, who pushed for substantial capital spending to upgrade the corridor for restored passenger rail service.

The biggest problem with this schedule was baked into the service plan: as a tri-weekly schedule, anyone considering taking the train had to work out whether it left on a day they wanted to leave and returned on a day that they wanted to return.

This schedule also proved over-ambitious for running in this corridor. Three-times-weekly services are intrinsically inefficient in their use of equipment, and so with Amtrak also under periodic budgeting pressure, there was periodic tinkering with the route and schedule to try to better maximize equipment and crew user, with the terminus being shifted to Sanford, Florida (where the Auto Train terminated) and by 1997 to Orlando, with nearly and hour and a half added to that portion of the route for improved on time performance:

  • New Orleans 8:15pm CT; Mobile 11:31pm; Tallahassee 7:55am ET; Jacksonville 12:10pm; Orlando 3:20pm
  • Orlando 6:50pm ET; Jacksonville 10:37pm; Tallahassee 1:52am; Mobile 8:14am CT; New Orleans 1:15pm

This service was still plagued with problems achieving its scheduled times, as was the original New Orleans to LA portion of the Sunset Ltd, and by the final service in May 2005, substantially more time was required for the schedule:

  • New Orleans 10:30pm CT; Mobile 2:30am; Tallahassee 12:42pm ET; Jacksonville 5:15pm; Orlando 8:45pm
  • Orlando 1:45pm ET; Jacksonville 5:30pm; Tallahassee 8:47pm; Mobile 3:29am CT; New Orleans 9:20pm

The three days a week service, constantly changing service times, and some remarkably patron-unfriendly timetabling goes a long way to explaining why there wasn't been an uproar about restoring the service after the post-Katrina infrastructure repair was complete.

On the other hand, as Bob Johnston reports, most of the upgrades made twenty five years ago to prepare this corridor for passenger service are still in place, and so this is the corridor that presently lacks intercity rail service which is best placed to re-establish service.

 
Gulf Coast Intercity Rail Done Right

In 2009, Amtrak prepared a Gulf Coast Service Plan Report (pdf). The Trains! proposal bases their schedule timings on this report, but focuses on making a more effective intercity transport service than Amtrak proposed in 2009. Where the Gulf Coast Service Plan focuses on Amtrak total costs, the Trains! proposal expands the scope to total benefit and cost, and so it proposes daily service, with the "morning-in, afternoon out" scheduling in New Orleans that has been successful in attracting patronage elsewhere in the US. The Trains! proposal includes a schedule of:

  • New Orleans 5:30pm CT; Mobile 8:55pm; Tallahassee 5:14am ET; Jacksonville 9:17am; Orlando 12:25pm
  • Orlando 3:00pm ET; Jacksonville 6:24pm; Tallahassee 9:41pm; Mobile 5:30am CT; New Orleans 8:45am

Note that this is a morning-in and afternoon-out schedule on both sides ... both at New Orleans (8:45am in / 5:30pm out) and at Jacksonville (9:17am in, 6:24am out), strengthening the regional intercity transport benefit between New Orleans and Mobile on the west and Jacksonville and Tallahassee, in the east, while offering effective post-business-hours sleeper service from the New Orleans through Mobile corridor into Jacksonville and from the Jacksonville through Tallahassee corridor through to New Orleans.

This schedule breaks the connection with the existing Sunset Ltd. (about which more below, but creates a connection with the City of New Orleans between Chicago and New Orleans. As far as the Jacksonville / Orlando leg, this is the part of the corridor that already has Amtrak service, with the Trains! Jacksonville to Orlando schedule nearly the same as the Silver Meteor service on the same corridor, while the Orlando to Jacksonville services are more evenly spread across the afternoon and evening:

  • Jacksonville to Orlando{+}:
    • Silver Star: 6:59am/10:06am
    • Gulf Wind: 9:17am/12:25pm
    • Silver Meteor 9:34am/12:44pm
  • Orlando to Jacksonville:
    • Silver Star: 1:45pm/4:52pm
    • Gulf Wind: 3:00pm/6:24pm
    • Silver Meteor: 7:32pm/10:43pm
  • {+: where separate arrival and departures are timetabled, times are departure to arrival.}

Achieving this schedule for daily service requires investment in route improvements, including:

  • Installing signals and upgrading tracks in CSX Gentilly yard in New Orleans;
  • Siding extension and spring switches at Molina, FL, north west of Pensacola;
  • Facilities for a crew change at Pensacola, FL
  • Self-restoring power switches and approach signals at Floridale, Sellers and De Funiak Springs, FL, east of Pensacola, FL; and
  • New passing Track with spring switches at Douglas City, FL, west of Tallahassee.

One reason for running the established New Orleans to Orlando route, rather than simply connecting with the Silver Star and/or Silver Meteor at Jacksonville is that Orlando to New Orleans is 769 miles by rail, which makes the corridor a long haul corridor. However, there is a more substantial reason, in that a reasonable eastern location to service the trains is the Auto Train facility at Sanford, near Orlando, and so terminating at Jacksonville would require the train to make a run of nearly the same length, except the Jacksonville to Sanford leg would be out of revenue service. Beyond that, as Bob Johnston writes:

... It is reasonable to assume that Amtrak would expect Gulf Coast states to help out with any capital and even maintenance expenses, as it has asked of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico with the Southwest Chief. Whatever arrangement is worked out, a new train should be a national network train free of of the whims of four state legislatures and governors mansions -- shortcomings of the state-supported passenger train model.

Bob Johnston does not extend into the lesson of the original establishment of this corridor, but over half of the corridor is located within the state of Florida, so it is Florida that is in the driver's seat. It took the strong support of Governor Chiles for the original Amtrak service to be established, and unless Rick Scott's regime in Florida is replaced with an administration committed to public service, any plan for restoration is likely to remain on the drawing board.

 
Orlando and All Aboard Florida

Note that an additional reason for extending the route of the new Gulf Wind to Orlando is to connect with the proposed Rapid Rail corridor between Miami and Orlando, as being pursued by All Aboard Florida. With hourly departures and a three hour trip between Orlando and Miami, the All Aboard Florida service is a much more compelling transfer than the Silver Meteor, which runs between Orlando and Miami in just over five and a half hours.

Now, the Amtrak route does not connect directly to the proposed Airport Intermodal center under development, but rather to Sunrail at Orlando Health / Amtrak Station ... but efforts are underway to connect Sunrail to the Orlando Airport ITC, and it would be worth at least exploring whether a new Gulf Wind would be able to terminate there to provide direct connections to the All Aboard Florida service.

 
What About Western Connections?

As noted, the Trains! schedule is focused on obtaining "morning in / afternoon out" scheduling at both ends, which implies breaking the previous connection with the New Orleans to Los Angeles Sunset Ltd.. However, as previously covers in the Sunday Train, when Amtrak was set to studying how to improve the effectiveness of its worst performing corridors, the plan that it arrived at (pdf) did not involve having a New Orleans to Los Angeles Sunset Limited.

Instead, what was proposed was:

  • Extend the daily Texas Eagle from its terminus in San Antonio through to Los Angeles via the Sunset Ltd. route; and
  • Operate a connecting corridor service from New Orleans to San Antonio.

The Westbound leg of the proposed New Orleans to San Antonio service is suitable to service with the Trains! proposed Gulf Wind:

  • New Orleans 9:45am
  • Houston 6:24pm
  • San Antonio 11pm

However, the Eastbound leg arrives too late to serve as the proposed Gulf Wind:

  • San Antonio 7:50am
  • Houston 12:00pm
  • New Orleans 9:00pm

If a 30 minute layover at New Orleans is assumed for schedule recovery, the western leg of the service would be ready to leave four hours after the Trains! proposed westbound schedule.

So, what would happen if the gap was bridged by pushing the San Antionio eastbound schedules up an hour and a half and the eastbound Gulf Wind schedule two and a half hours later? That would look something like this:

  • San Antonio 6:20am
  • Houston 10:30am
  • New Orleans 7:30pm ar
  • New Orleans 8:00pm dp
  • Mobile 11:25pm
  • Tallahassee 7:44am ET
  • Jacksonville 11:47am
  • Orlando 2:55pm

In this case, the game does not seem to be worth the candle. The proposed conversion of the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited benefits in part from substantially greater equipment efficiencies ... which shifting the LA departure may interfere with ... and from substantially better times at some of the largest population centers along the route:

  • City: Current Eastbound - Westbound VS Proposed Eastbound - Westbound
  • Phoenix-Maricopa: 11:17pm - 12:57am VS 8:14am - 8:13pm
  • Tuscon: 1:55am - 11:30pm VS 10:22am - 6:46pm
  • Houston: 5:10am - 9:50pm VS 12:10pm - 6:35pm

Both the Amtrak Texas Eagle / Sunset Limited upgrade and the proposed Trains! Gulf Wind schedule upgrade are worthwhile, but their value is that they focus on effective timing for the transport demands along their corridor. Compromising both, or sacrificing one to the other -- as the Gulf Coast leg of the Sunset Ltd eastbound was clearly sacrificed to the needs of the Sunset Ltd. further west -- would be repeating the strategic mistake made in 1993.

 
Conclusions and Conversations

I'm generally impressed by the Trains! magazine proposal for a new Gulf Wind route, but now it the time when I bring the warm-up to the conversation to a close and open the floor for conversation. What do you think about the Gulf Wind proposal? And what missing link in the national intercity rail network would you set forward to look at next?

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BruceMcF's picture
Submitted by BruceMcF on

The City of New Orleans

Ridin' on the City of New Orleans
   Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail
All along the southbound odyssey the train pulls out of Kankakee
And rolls along past houses farms and fields
Passing trains that have no name and freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

Good morning, America. How are you?
Say, don't you know me? I'm your native son
I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans
And I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

Dealin' cards with the old men in the club car
Penny a point, ain't no one keepin' score
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
And feel the wheels rumbling 'neath the floor
And the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers
Ride their fathers' magic carpet made of steel
Mothers with their babes asleep rockin' to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

Good morning, America. How are you?
Say, don't you know me? I'm your native son
I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans
And I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

Night time on the City of New Orleans changing cars in Memphis Tennessee
Halfway home we'll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea
And all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news
The conductor sings his songs again the passengers will please refrain
This train has got the disappearing railroad blues

Good morning, America. How are you?
Say, don't you know me? I'm your native son
I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

Submitted by lambert on

Of course, my candidate would be a Boston to Bangor line; Amtrak stops now at Brunswick, IIRC, in the south of the state. I don't know how one would justify it, though, against the rapid and reasonably pleasant bus ride offered by Concord Coach.

However, I think I am too tired to make sense of the Gulf Wind proposal...

P.S. I read Trains too!

BruceMcF's picture
Submitted by BruceMcF on

A daily sleeper train New Orleans to Orlando, on the route that was used by the Sunset Ltd three times a week before Hurricane Katrina. Leaving the Big Easy 5pm, getting to Jacksonville a little after 9am, Orlando by half past noon. The flip side leaves Orlando 3pm, Jacksonville about half past six, gets to the Big Easy at quarter to 9 in the morning.

The challenge going north of Brunswick is that the rail corridor to Augusta seems to stop there, and the rail corridor to Bangor runs through Waterville but swings west of Augusta ... it goes through Lewiston. So if the Downeaster was going to be extended, extending it to Augusta like makes the most sense for the next leg, but then that looks like the end of the corridor.

A Bangor line would be a local from Bangor to Portland, transferring to the Downeaster in Portland ... Portland, North Yarmouth, Lewiston, Winthrop, Waterville, Fairfield, Burnham, Carmel, Bangor. I'd not be surprised if that is mostly a timber road, in which case it could well be in pretty bad shape. And such a round about way to get to Augusta, it doesn't really eliminate the need for an Augusta bus, at which point there's the question why have the railway.