When I was a boy, the Southern Pacific Railroad operated six trains a day between Phoenix Union Station and Tucson. They were part of the fading American passenger-rail system, once the finest in the world.
The top of the line were the crack Sunset Limited, SP's flagship running between New Orleans and Los Angeles (once it went all the way to San Francisco). Phoenix to Tucson took less than two-and-a-half hours. Then the Golden State Limited, another premier train operated by SP from Los Angeles to Tucumcari, N.M., where it was handed off to the Rock Island for the trip to Chicago. Finally, there was the remains of the Imperial, once a fine train in its own right but by the 1960s a mail train with a single coach.
But the trains were dying, helped along by the Postal Service canceling the vital mail contracts in 1967-68. Amtrak took over a much diminished Sunset — three days a week — and it left Phoenix in the 1990s when the state would not help maintain the northern main line. Phoenix is the largest city in America with no passenger trains.
I mention this history as the Arizona Department of Transportation studies passenger rail between Phoenix and Tucson. It has gotten press. But is it possible?
As a practical-mechanical matter, of course. ADOT seems to favor using mostly the old SP line (now under Union Pacific after the 1996 merger).
Because metro Phoenix exports little by rail, as opposed to the decades when we helped feed the nation, there's plenty of capacity along the line. Incoming freight is mostly automobile "racks," lumber and aggregates. Between Picacho Junction and Tucson, UP is already double-tracking the southern main line.
UP executives would huff and say "hell, no" — until the state paid to ensure enough track capacity, signaling and grade separation to ensure passenger trains didn't interfere with freight trains. And the state congressional delegation would make sure the UP suits knew they wouldn't get a slip of paper through the Surface Transportation Board unless they played along.
Another option would be purchasing the line from Phoenix to Picacho Junction and allowing the UP trackage rights for the diminishing amount of freight.
And planners should think holistically, restoring the line between Phoenix and Welton so the Sunset could operate through Phoenix again, and creating commuter-train service to Buckeye, Goodyear, Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler on the UP, and Glendale, Peoria, Surprise and Wickenburg on the BNSF (the old Santa Fe Railway).
It's important to use Union Station. Sure, the city would need to purchase the building from Sprint, but what a wonderful place to center train operations — look what's been done in Denver, where Denver Union Station is the hub of the city's visionary FasTracks project. This is also why the south light-rail line (WWBIYB) needs to jink over to Third Avenue, to connect with Union Station. In Seattle, King Street Station has been beautifully restored as a busy depot; the same in LA.
Every, repeat every, form of transportation is subsidized. Costs always have to be measured against externalities (e.g. the emissions of cars, the many environmental degradations of freeways and sprawl, etc.). The $2 billion to $4 billion to be wasted on the South Mountain Freeway would pay for a lot of passenger rail. And don't forget that rail creates much-needed operating jobs.
Besides Denver, a good place to look for best practices would be Southern California, where an extensive passenger rail system has been set up in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas. Trains are an essential part of moving people now in these sprawling places. The Amtrak Cascades connect Eugene, Ore., with Vancouver, B.C. I can take a train to Portland, avoiding the disaster of I-5 traffic, with time to read or work aboard comfortable cars.
Merely doing this to ensure reliable passenger service would be transformative. A little more investment would buy higher-speed rail, say 125 miles-per-hour. One doesn't need true high-speed rain — although we should have it nationwide like every other advanced urbanized country in the world.
Politically, the proposition is impossible. The GOP, strangely for "conservatives," has a reflexive fetish against all things rail. One of John McCain's long crusades has been to kill Amtrak.
So to paraphrase one of the commenters on Rogue, Arizona can't have nice things because the Republicans are in charge.
Instead, it has an antiquated 1971 transportation system, but because Arizonans don't get out much all too many think they are so advanced.