Return to a track-less desert?
Phoenix may lose rail-passenger links
By Mary Jo Pitzl
The Arizona Republic
May 02, 2001 12:00:00
It's been nearly five years since the last Amtrak passenger train pulled out
Now the track's owner wants to pull up the rails, severing - possibly
forever - any rail-passenger links with Phoenix.
Union Pacific Railroad plans to abandon 76 miles of track west of the
Phoenix metro area. The rusting track stretches across empty desert from
just west of Palo Verde to the tiny town of Roll in southwestern Arizona.
The railroad says the unused track and the land it runs on could be more
profitable as real estate and it hopes to complete the abandonment by the
end of the year.
Rail advocates say that would be a step backward and are scrambling to
interest state officials in buying the track. That would keep options open
for a rail link between Phoenix and Los Angeles, they say.
"Phoenix is limiting itself to automotive or air transportation," laments
Lloyd Clark, a member of the Arizona Rail Passengers Association and a
lifelong train buff.
Rail provides an alternative way to travel, an option that will be
increasingly important as air and road gridlock worsens, rail officials say.
"We're turning more and more to rail to solve some of our transportation
problems," said Debbie Hare, an Amtrak spokesman.
But the hopes for a hero, swooping in faster than a speeding bullet train,
The Arizona Department of Transportation is interested, but won't go it
alone. A partnership with Amtrak could be one way to cover the $25 million
needed to restore the deteriorating track to service, says Joe Neblett,
state rail planner at ADOT.
But Amtrak officials, while interested in returning passenger service to the
nation's sixth-largest city, don't have any money to back it up.
"We continue to discuss this issue with the state," Hare said. "Amtrak is
not in a financial position to help this situation."
Things could change, she said. If Congress approves a high-speed rail
investment bill, and if the Los Angeles-to-Phoenix link were designated a
high-speed rail corridor, it could get federal dollars, Hare said. But that
link is not on the list of 11 potential high-speed corridors.
The track west of Phoenix essentially has not been used since June 1996,
when Amtrak's Sunset Limited made its last run from Tucson to Phoenix and on
to Los Angeles. Since then, Amtrak has served Phoenix by busing passengers
to and from Tucson, where the Sunset Limited travels on the Union Pacific's
This summer, a station is slated to open at Maricopa, the closest the
mainline runs to the metro area. Amtrak may install a passenger stop at the
Gov. Jane Hull's Vision 21 transportation task force has discussed the need
to preserve rail corridors so the state has transportation alternatives, but
has not yet made specific recommendations.
Rail advocates say the time to act is now, before the steel rail is pulled
up for recycling and the wooden ties sold as scrap.
Across the United States, transportation agencies are buying up rail
corridors and either preserving them for future use or putting them to
immediate work hauling passengers and freight. From the San Francisco-San
Jose corridor in California, to Salt Lake City, to a 14-mile segment of rail
in Boise, Idaho, Union Pacific has sold track that then is used for local
and regional service, railroad spokesman Mike Furtney said.
"It's a full-time business back at UP (headquarters) in Omaha dealing with
transit issues," Furtney said.
Even in Arizona, there is some interest in using the railroad's track from
Phoenix southeast to Picacho and down to Tucson for commuter rail, Furtney
But west of town, the greatest interest comes from people with big dreams
and shallow pockets.
"I think it would be a crime if we let the UP abandon that section of
railroad without the state doing something about it," said John Bivens, a
transportation consultant and member of the Vision 21 task force. "You can
never get back the right of way and the trackage."
Clark, who last traveled the Phoenix branch a decade ago on a trip to San
Diego, agrees the cost to build a new rail line would far outstrip the cost
to preserve the track.
On a scouting trip along the now-silent tracks, Clark points out the World
War II military training camps that the rail line served.
Gen. George Patton chose the area to prep soldiers for service in North
Africa, carving out Camp Hyder and Camp Horn from scrubby patches of desert
just north of the rail line. Troops packed out for desert training,
expecting Palm Springs but getting creosote flats.
"See that little hill to the right?" Clark asks, pointing to a spot framed
by the Eagle Tail Mountains. "That's where they had the little amphitheater
where Bob Hope and Bing Crosby performed."
The track runs through some of the loneliest parts of Arizona. But its value
is in the major cities it connects, not the dusty stops, like Kofa, Saddle
and Gillespie, Clark said.
In Hyder, Kathy Hawthorne staffs a convenience store in what was once the
Hyder depot. Twenty years ago, the stop provided lucrative business for her
father-in-law's cafe, where he made $1,000 a day.
"He'd feed the train crews," she said.
The stretch of track is perhaps most famous in recent history for the Amtrak
derailment that happened just east of Hyder in 1995. Authorities have never
pinpointed the cause of the wreck, which killed one person and injured 78
The Union Pacific's Furtney says the move to abandon the track is driven by
the property's long-term value as real estate, not by a desire to save on
upkeep costs. The rail line was downgraded to "storage" status four years
ago, and has seen little traffic.
"There's no longer commercial viability in it," he said. "As part of this,
they may come up with a rails-to-trails kind of thing."
Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@...
or (602) 444-8963.