The city of Benson wants to fix its bare-bones Amtrak station, and Tombstone boosters hope that improved train service would also draw tourists to their town 24 miles away. How realistic is the idea?
The train route in question is Amtrak’s 1,995-mile-long Sunset Limited. And here’s the problem: The Sunset Limited stands out among Amtrak’s struggling long-distance routes for its weak performance.
Since Amtrak’s inception in 1971, “the Sunset Limited has been one of the weakest financial performers in the Amtrak long distance network,” Amtrak said in a report on the route in 2010.
The original route was a tri-weekly service between Los Angeles and New Orleans. However, in 1993 the route was extended from New Orleans to Miami.
In 1996, routes through Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and Coolidge were replaced with a route between Yuma and Tucson, stopping in Benson three times a week. This change resulted in a huge loss of passengers.
There have been previous efforts to turn this around.
One of these changes was a price reduction, but that was a downward spiral and ended up “leading to lower revenues and declining financial performances,” according to Amtrak reports.
The Sunset Limited is also known for long layovers and delayed times.
In Benson, the station’s platform looks as bad as the train’s reputation.
Whether the Sunset Limited can produce enough new travelers to meet the expectation of the local boosters is an open-ended question.
Overall, passenger rail is “in the midst of a Renaissance” in the United States, according to a report by the Brookings Institution in March.
But most of the growth is in short-distance trains like the 400-mile route on the Northeast corridor, which generates more than a third of all Amtrak riders, Brookings said, adding: “More problematic are the far traveling routes, such as the Sunset Limited” because of low ridership. The situation is made worse by “poor ontime performance,” Brookings said.
Imagine being stuck waiting for a train with no enclosed waiting areas, no ATM, no payphones, no ticket office — and no restrooms.
Welcome to the Amtrak stop in Benson.
With only a dirt parking lot, telephone poles, an informational board, two benches and a small metal covering, this stop paints a picture far from a popular train station.
A total of seven people waited for the train coming from Los Angeles early Thursday morning. The train lived up to its reputation to lateness for delays. It arrived 45 minutes late. Only two passengers were traveling.
The antsy travelers waited patiently in their cars with family members who had dropped them off.
Nancy Drouin, who has been riding the Sunset Limited once a year since Sept. 11, was one of the seven people waiting.
“I would love the platform to be re-done. I would love to have restrooms and a place to eat in times like this,” she said.
While waiting, people had to keep calling the Amtrak phone number to get information on the whereabouts on the train because there is no one to talk to there.
Drouin and her daughter live 18 miles from Tombstone.
“We have been here 18 years, and I definitely see a decrease of tourists in Tombstone so this proposed idea would be lovely,” she said.
Bob Nilsen, the Benson Visitor Center director, has been involved with the plan along with Steve Troncale and members of Amtrak.
“It takes a long time to put together a deal with the three entities – Amtrak, Union Pacific Railroad and the City of Benson. So we haven’t progressed too far since the last time,” Nilsen said.
If such a project wouldn’t have much impact on the tourism, would it at least make the stop in Benson more convenient for the regular riders who board there?
“There’s no where to buy your tickets. I have to buy them online,” Drouin said.
With that being said, the answer would be yes.
Meanwhile, Steve Troncale, commissioner at the Historic District Commission, said, “There is nothing new to report at this time.”