Save the Coast Starlight!
TRAC Press Conference, July 27, 2006
The Coast Starlight is a passenger train that runs between Seattle and Los Angeles. Currently there is one train in each direction each day. Not too many years ago the Starlight, because of its elegance, its scenic beauty and its reliability was one of the most popular and respected passenger rail lines in the world. Not now! In the last few years, the performance and reliability of this once renowned long distance train have fallen off the charts.
Today the Starlight trains are running between 5 and 15 hours late. Riders are furious; dozens of TRAC members have called in.
According to TRAC President Gerald Cauthen: “Because of the failure of the Union Pacific Railroad to live up to its legal obligations and the failure of Amtrak and the federal government to do anything about the problem, the quality of the once excellent Starlight service has virtually disintegrated, to the point where the future of the line may be in jeopardy”.
The reasons for the excessive Starlight delays are not hard to find. First, Union Pacific, the owner of the line, provides only one track along the 640-mile section between Portland and Sacramento. It is in this section where many of the worst conflicts and problems occur. Along this section there are frequent scheduling conflicts between the many Union Pacific freight trains using the line and the Starlight trains. This situation is made even worse because Union Pacific’s policy of deferring needed track maintenance, thereby causing safety problems serious enough to require the Federal Railway Administration to impose no less than 100 speed restrictions along the section. Finally, there is the problem of dispatching. The movements of freights and passenger trains along the single track is complicated by many factors including the speed restrictions, Union Pacific yard and marshalling snafus and various priority considerations. For this reason it requires great care and diligence on the part of dispatchers to make certain that conflicts are minimized. Unfortunately the dispatching of the trains that travel along the section between Portland and Sacramento is executed by Union Pacific dispatchers with little apparent interest in passenger rail travel and little concern for the Amtrak patrons riding on Union Pacific tracks.
There are several ways of improving the current situation. The way out of the current mess begins with 49 USC 24308 (c) which requires that: Amtrak trains be given “preference over freight transportation…except in an emergency” or where the Secretary of Transportation, in response to a railroad’s application for relief, has “established the rights of the carrier and Amtrak on reasonable terms”. According to Cauthen: “Since the excessive Starlight delays are clearly being caused by Union Pacific actions and inactions, it appears that for whatever reason Union Pacific has concluded that it does not have to follow 49 USC 24308 (c). This is not acceptable.”
To resolve the current problem U.P. must:
- Maintain its tracks so as to avoid the need for speed restrictions
- Reorient and retrain its dispatchers to ensure that scheduling takes place in accordance with the agreed upon requirements of 49 USC 24308 (c)
- Establish a program and schedule for adding trackage as required to adequately accommodate both freight rail and passenger rail traffic. Publish this program for all to see. Then execute it.
Despite the currently deplorable state of the Starlight service, its users are showing remarkable resilience. Despite the delays and unreliability the trains continue to be well used. These inveterate travelers deserve better. It’s time that the Governor of California, Washington and Oregon, the three states most adversely affected by the growing international awareness of the decline of the Starlight, to start demanding improvement. And its time for the federal government to start paying serious attention to the deteriorating state of its passenger rail network…beginning with the Coast Starlight.