Dramatic drops in rail passenger travel in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic could force Amtrak to cut back service on both of its cross-country routes through Arizona, a move that could trigger economic hardships in a half dozen small communities in the state.
In a letter requesting that Congress appropriate $1.4 billion in additional funding, Amtrak CEO William Flynn said the company had been on track to surpass its 2019 total of 32 million passengers before the COVID-19 virus hit.
“Today many of our routes are struggling to reach 10 percent of the ridership levels we had only months ago,” he wrote, adding that he expects to see ridership totals drop to half its 2019 levels in the coming fiscal year.
“The $1.475 billion is in addition to Amtrak’s $2.040 billion annual grant request submitted to Congress earlier this year, and without this support, Amtrak will be unable to minimize the impacts to service and its workforce,” he wrote.
Already the company, which Flynn said had been on track to break even for the first time in its history, has suspended service, eliminated stops and reduced the frequency on some of its routes, mostly on the East Coast.
So far the impact on the two Amtrak routes that pass through Arizona has been minimal, but without the additional funding, the service is at risk, Flynn’s letter states. Even with the funding, some service reductions are still possible.
The Sunset Limited runs from Los Angeles to New Orleans, across Southern Arizona, with stops in Yuma, Maricopa, Tucson and Benson. The Southwest Chief runs from Los Angeles to Chicago, across Northern Arizona, and stops in Kingman, Flagstaff and Winslow.
Both lines are rich in history and played integral roles in Arizona’s development.
“The Southwest Chief line is part of the nostalgia and brand of the city of Flagstaff,” said Trace Ward, director of Discover Flagstaff, the city’s convention and visitor bureau.
“There are people who prefer to travel by train and will come from other parts of the state to ride Amtrak from the historic Flagstaff train station,” he said.
In an e-mail response to questions from the Arizona Republic, Ward said the city serves 35,000 Amtrak passengers a year.
While that’s only a small part of Flagstaff’s annual tourism business, “it is still a significant contributor to the local economy,” Ward said.
Bob Nilson, tourism supervisor for the city of Benson Visitor Center in southeastern Arizona, said any cuts to service on the Sunset Limited would be a blow to the city.
“Benson is here because of the railroad,” he said. “It’s a key piece of our history.”
The city was founded in 1880 when the Southern Pacific railroad came through and was named for a friend of railroad president Charles Crocker.
Amtrak’s Sunset Limited runs three days a week each way. Eastbound trains pass through Benson on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and westbound trains pass through on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Nilson said that on Thursdays it’s not unusual for people to take the eastbound morning train from Tucson, 45 miles away, to Benson, spend the day in town, and then take the evening train home.
He said the economic impact of any service reductions would be hard to calculate, but that much of the downtown is focused on the railroad, and Amtrak is a key part of that.
“It is our downtown,” he said.
Last year, when Union Pacific brought its historic “Big Boy” steam locomotive No. 4014 through Benson, 7,000 people showed up to see it.
“Our population is only 5,000,” Nilson said.
The Sunset Limited is also at the center of a dark Arizona mystery.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 9, 1995, the westbound train derailed in the desert 70 miles southwest of Phoenix. Eight cars went off the tracks, with four of them falling from a trestle bridge. One Amtrak employee was killed, and 100 people were injured.
An investigation determined that someone who apparently had knowledge of railroad operations had deliberately pulled 29 railroad spikes from the tracks and bypassed computer sensors that would have warned crews that the rails had separated. In several cryptic notes found at the scene, a group named “Sons of the Gestapo” claimed responsibility. Federal authorities were unable to verify whether the group really existed and have never been able to solve the crime.
Author, historian and journalist Tom Zoellner said the Sunset Limited and the Southwest Chief have played key roles in Arizona’s history.
“Both these routes are like a 19th-century skeletal system for Arizona,” he said. “You can see how all the major towns in the northern and southern tiers were arranged for them as watering stops and division points.”
The Amtrak route across Northern Arizona is featured prominently in Zoellner’s book, Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief, but he said both still play significant economic roles.
“Amtrak continues to serve as an employment base and low-cost travel option for many of these Arizona cities,” he said.
“Losing these routes would be like losing a part of our soul. Amtrak is in many ways the essence of mediocrity, but places like Flagstaff, Winslow, Maricopa and even Tucson would be spiritually and economically poorer without even sporadic train service,” which he likened to “a desert without cactus.”
John D’Anna is a reporter on The Arizona Republic/azcentral.com storytelling team. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @azgreenday.
Read or Share this story: https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-health/2020/05/27/coronavirus-arizona-covid-19-pandemic-could-impact-amtrak-service/5263644002/