The Desert Sun Editorial Board
A daily Amtrak train between Indio and Los Angeles would be a dream come true.
Of course, folks have been dreaming about this for decades and it always hits two walls:
- Union Pacific owns the tracks from Indio to San Bernardino and uses them to haul freight. More than 60 freight trains a day pass through our valley.
- A prohibitive price tag for upgrading the tracks. A Coachella Valley Association of Governments report last year said the UP put it at $700 million.
However, there is new momentum and reasons for optimism.
A presidential push
President Barack Obama announced a goal in his State of the Union address to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within five years. Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden laid out plans to create the infrastructure needed to reach the goal, pledging to spend $53 billion on fast trains in the next six years.
"As part of President Obama’s commitment to winning the future by rebuilding America’s roadways, railways and runways, the plan will lay out a new foundation for the nation’s economic opportunity, job creation and competitiveness," Biden said.
We want in on that.
But long before we even dream of cruising to the beach at 90-125 mph, there could be opportunities in the near future.
Daily service within 18 months?
Greg Pettis, the Cathedral City councilman who chairs the Riverside County Transportation Commission, believes daily service could begin within 18 months.
The Sunset Limited travels 2,000 miles between Los Angeles and New Orleans, stopping six times a week in Palm Springs. It is the oldest train name in the nation, dating back to the 1890s. Ridership increased 6.1 percent from January 2010 to January 2011, compared to the same period the previous year. It picks up westbound passengers about 5 a.m. and eastbound passengers about 5:15 p.m. on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
However, the Sunset Limited is the worst performing route for Amtrak financially. Robert Manning, chairman of the Southwest Rail Passenger Association, said an internal Amtrak study found a daily 141-mile route from Indio to Los Angeles and back could make it one of the best performing routes. Making the Sunset Limited a daily train also would increase its profitability, he said.
Manning said the second-worst performing Amtrak train is the Cardinal, which runs thrice weekly from Chicago, through Washington, D.C. and to New York City. All other long-distance Amtrak trains operate daily.
Naming the Indio-to-Los Angeles train would be a fun exercise - the Coachella Express, perhaps, like the special train that took music lovers to the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in 2008?
Imagine what a boost this could be for the Coachella Valley’s $1 billion tourism industry. No study has been conducted on the economic impact, but surely if 15 million residents of Los Angeles and Orange counties have the option of riding a train instead of driving on Interstate 10, that could attract more visitors.
The CVAG study says three new stations would be needed in the Coachella Valley:
- Indio has long envisioned a transit center on Indio Boulevard east of the Jackson Street overpass. The project is tied up in a lawsuit between the city and its former developer. A trial is scheduled to begin March 14. However, city leaders consistently express determination that the center will be built.
- Land is set aside along Ramon Road in Rancho Mirage next to the Agua Caliente Casino Resort & Spa. Promotional possibilities abound.
- The Palm Springs Amtrak station is woefully inadequate, providing no enclosed waiting area and no climate control.In all three cases, there is an opportunity for retail and restaurants. Stations also are suggested for Cabazon, Beaumont/Banning and Redlands/Loma Linda.
Daily trains also would be good for the environment. Trains generate less carbon dioxide than cars. Traveling by train is 20 percent more fuel efficient than airlines and 28 percent more than automobiles on a per-passenger-mile basis, said Roy Deitchman, Amtrak’s vice president for environmental health and safety.
Amtrak plans to replace its entire fleet in the next five years, switching to ultra-low-sulfur fuels.
Rep. Mary Bono Mack wrote to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in September urging federal support of regular rail service to and from the Coachella Valley.
"The local enthusiasm is rooted in an understanding that additional trains will generate economic interest in the area and lead to transit-oriented and environmentally prudent land uses," the Palm Springs Republican wrote.
Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, who is in line to be the next chairman of the transportation commission, said daily train service "sounds plausible."
And, he wondered, "Who knows what the price of oil is going to be in five years?"
Gassing up desire for trains
Amid the Middle East turmoil, the price of a barrel of oil topped the $100 mark on Wednesday for the first time since 2008, up 15 percent in just a week.
The Middle East and North Africa provide 29 percent of the world’s oil. Oil production in the region is controlled by governments, not by independent companies, so prices are linked to political stability.
Local expects predict the price of a gallon of gas could top $4 within a month. The higher the cost of gas goes, the more alluring a train ride looks.
Still an uphill climb
Of course, major obstacles remain. All public transit requires some assistance and CVAG estimates the service would need a $2 million annual subsidy, after ticket revenues are taken into account. Leaders hope that casinos and other tourist attractions that stand to benefit would help foot the bill. A thorough economic impact study would be essential to selling this subsidy.
The Indio-to-Los Angeles train would not likely work for commuters. The Sunset Limited takes 3 hours and 38 minutes to get to Los Angeles, traveling at an average of 45 mph. Adding more stations would lengthen the duration. But for tourists who can relax and take their time - from here to the beach or vice versa - it would be great.
Amtrak has a legal right to use the Union Pacific tracks. Upgrades may be needed, but The Desert Sun doubts it would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Sheldon Peterson, rail manager for the county transportation commission, expressed skepticism about the estimated. Allyn Waggle, CVAG’s deputy director, called the $700 million an "unreasonable number." That puts it mildly.
The tracks accommodate more than 400 freight trains a week. They can surely handle a few dozen Amtrak trips as well.