Railway Dreams: Improving rail service could boost economy

Posted: Sunday, May 8, 2016 1:00 am | Updated: 8:27 am, Mon May 9, 2016.

By Matt Harding, Yuma Sun staff writer

Yuma is ready for increased commercial and passenger rail services, but local government and business leaders say that while that’s the plan, it’s unlikely to happen in the near future.

Investment for grandiose projects, such as linking Yuma with Mexico, would require an abundance of capital and plenty of time to allow for planning, purchasing land, establishing right of ways, and so on.

But the goal of linking the Union Pacific rail line, which goes through Yuma, with the Ferromex line in Mexico is one that is “actively being pursued,” according to Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls.

However, he said, it’s more than a decade away from possibility.

Union Pacific is the commercial rail operator that operates through Yuma on a 760-mile corridor called the Sunset Route that links Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas.

The Ferromex line in Mexico nearest to Yuma terminates in Mexicali, Baja Calif.

A lack of rail is an economic problem for the community, says Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation (GYEDC) President Julie Engel.

“We have lost out on so many projects that needed rail,” said Engel, adding that developers are looking for existing infrastructure — not only with a rail line itself, but with spurs that have on-site offloading facilities.

“We just had to turn down a project that was exactly what we’re targeting, which is food production,” Engel said. “It was a really good project, but they wanted an existing building (that) doesn’t exist in Yuma County.”

She said the Yuma area misses out on opportunities “almost weekly” because of the lack of infrastructure.

“It’s an ongoing struggle,” she added.

Commercial Rail

While connecting Yuma County to Mexico isn’t the only railway dream for local leaders, it is certainly the most ambitious. Nicholls and Engel both say the region is, at minimum, two decades from seeing such projects come to fruition.

In 2013, the Yuma Metropolitan Planning Organization (YMPO) published the Yuma County Rail Corridor Study, which looked at seven regional possibilities for rail improvements.

The main purpose of the study was to recommend a feasible rail corridor between Yuma County and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California, but to do that, multiple alternatives that would help facilitate such a big idea were considered.

Three alternatives looked directly at creating the link between the border nations, connecting Union Pacific’s Sunset Route to the Ferromex line by first building an industrial park in San Luis near the port of entry.

UP is a 26 percent owner of Ferromex, so Mayor Nicholls says “they do have an interest in connecting the two.”

“But it doesn’t mean that Union Pacific has to do that connection,” Nicholls said. “It could be done by a third party.”

The 2013 study cited large parcels of available land near SR 195. The rail would likely reach the Sunset Route along that same highway, known as Araby Road in Yuma.

The estimated cost of connecting San Luis II Port of Entry with UP’s route was $101.9 million.

The next alternative in the study took a look at extending that route to actually connect to the Ferromex line, which was estimated to cost $43.9 million.

Finally, the big vision for the project would continue this line more than 200 miles southwest to the port at Punta Colonet, Baja Calif., along the Pacific Coast.

Union Pacific was looking at possibly starting to get the metaphorical wheels rolling on the project about a decade ago, but then the recession hurt chances for further discussion, said YMPO executive director Charlene FitzGerald.

She also said that agriculture businesses were worried that the line would disrupt their fields.

“We’re not against rail,” said FitzGerald, speaking about the agriculture industry specifically, “we just want to be at the table (and) we want to be a part of the decision process of where it gets placed.”

Where it would be placed, and how it would be used are two key points that need to be agreed upon to move forward.

“The next step,” Nicholls said, “is to get that corridor designated and get people interested in funding because I think is going to need to be a public-private partnership.

He added, “Expecting the government to build it is probably not realistic.”

Nicholls said regional discussions continue to try to move the possibilities forward.

Justin Jacobs, director of corporate relations and media for UP’s western region, wrote via email, “We, Union Pacific, are aware of many proposals circulated over the years, and are currently not aware of any significant proposals, but we will engage the interested parties if one takes shape.”

As of now, the ideas and possibilities are seemingly endless.

What type of line is placed, and how it could be used, creates numerous economic opportunities, Engel said.

Nicholls noted that it’s important that the rail line that comes through Yuma stops in the city. “In other words,” he said, “we didn’t just want to become a conduit, (but) we want to experience a benefit from it — not just have it come through.”

Engel said that a short-line operator between Yuma and Mexico would create the most economic opportunities.

“Automobile manufacturers will only locate in regions that can have rail service right to their door,” she said, also noting the fewer number of spurs in the community now than in past years.

She mentioned that there are six active railroad spurs in the area.

“In order to even be considered (for many development projects), you have to have rail,” Engel said. “This region (including Mexico) can’t even be considered today because we don’t have that service.”

“We’re in a hub,” said FitzGerald, noting regional cities including Mexicali, San Diego and San Luis. “We’re kind of our own little super region. So if we had a transloading (facility) … we could make deliveries faster than anyone could from Phoenix or San Diego or L.A.”

Passenger Rail

The federally-subsidized Amtrak is the only long-distance passenger rail service provider in the nation.

It operates largely antiquated rail cars, although some 40-year-old locomotives were retired last week to make way for new electric trains this June on its Northeast Corridor, which is Amtrak’s largest ridership area.

For fiscal year 2015, Amtrak operated at a loss of more than $306.5 million. In six of the last 11 years, it operated at a loss of more than $400 million (more than $450 million twice).

Opportunities to hop on a train from Yuma to Phoenix or San Diego are either nonexistent or abysmal.

Two routes go through Yuma.

The first is the Sunset Limited, which travels between Los Angeles and New Orleans. The second is the Texas Eagle, which links Los Angeles and Chicago.

From L.A. to San Antonio, the train is essentially the same carrier, meaning, in reality, only one route actually comes through Yuma. From San Antonio, the Sunset Limited heads toward Houston onto New Orleans, while the Texas Eagles heads toward Austin onto Chicago.

Pickup times

Photo by Matt Harding/Yuma Sun
Pickups at the Amtrak station downtown are at around midnight for the westbound train, and just before 3 a.m. for the eastbound train.

The passenger train passes through Yuma once a day — the westbound train at 11:49 p.m. and the eastbound train at 2:47 a.m.

A one-way trip to L.A. costs $34 for the cheapest option.

The cost for a one-way trip to Phoenix or San Diego? Likely, a headache.

Phoenix is the largest metropolitan area in the country without passenger rail service, just ahead of Las Vegas. It lost Amtrak service 20 years ago this June. Now, riders can get to the city via Amtrak’s Thruway Motorcoach from Flagstaff. From Yuma, Phoenix would be most easily accessed through Maricopa, a suburb more than 30 miles south of the city where the train still stops.

Rail riders can get to San Diego via the Pacific Surfliner route. But first, they have to travel to LA. The more than nine-hour trip isn’t exactly time effective.

Despite the inefficiencies with the system, locally, the goal is to improve infrastructure to alter the train experience for Yumans and people passing through.

A recently-submitted federal grant application could bring nearly $12 million to the city to refurbish the historic Hotel del Sol downtown, and turn it into a transportation hub — not only for rail, but buses too.

“The (train) pickup times are late at night, so having a facility would change the experience for people,” Mayor Nicholls said. “It’d be a lot more positive, I would anticipate.”

GYEDC’s Engel thinks local commuter routes would benefit the region, connecting people in southern and eastern Yuma County, as well as Mexico.

Just like with commercial rail, investment, she said, is the biggest reason why tracks probably won’t hit the ground anytime soon.

“It would be really neat if we could have some kind of passenger rail during the day to help us get people from Point A to Point B, especially from South County to East County,” said Engel, citing the “rapid growth” in the San Luis area of the county.

Of course, she said, “This is in a perfect world.”

Up to the bridge

Photo by Matt Harding/Yuma Sun
An eastbound train crosses the bridge over the Colorado River next to the Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge.


Photo by Matt Harding/Yuma Sun
A double-stack train travels past a vacant train station just west of the St. Thomas Yuma Indian Mission.