State of U.S. Passenger Rail – Arizona

Amtrak ridership in Arizona has grown significantly in recent years, and this post, part of a series looking at rail ridership in each state, will look at the factors driving the trend.

Arizona is served by two long-distance Amtrak routes running east-west across the state. Across the northern part of the state is the Southwest Chief, with daily service between Chicago and Los Angeles via Kansas City and Albuquerque. Across the southern part of the state, the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle run together as a combined train, making three runs a week in each direction.

Amtrak’s ridership growth in Arizona is mostly being driven by growing ridership at the stations served by the Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle. This map shows the location of Arizona’s eight Amtrak stations, color-coded by route. The four Southwest Chief stations are red, and the four Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle stations are blue.

The Sunset Limited runs six trains per week across the state while the Southwest Chief runs more than twice that number, 14. So with the greater train frequencies on the Southwest Chief, one would expect its ridership in the state to be more than double the Sunset Limited’s. That was traditionally the case, but in recent years, ridership at Tucson and Maricopa has risen substantially while ridership at most of the other stations has been flat. So while Flagstaff has been and remains the most popular stop in the state, Tucson is catching up quickly, with a ridership boom that began in 2006 and has not let up. Ridership at Tucson more than doubled between 2006 and 2014, rising from 10,965 to 27,917.

The view in the following chart shows the evolving trend. Growing ridership at two Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle stations, Tucson and Maricopa, is the primary factor driving increasing train ridership in Arizona. And although the scale is lower, ridership to or from the lower-ridership stations on the Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle has been surging as well. The number of passengers going to or from Yuma doubled between 2005 and 2012, rising from 1,993 to 4,011 over the period, and ridership at Benson more than doubled from 2006 to 2014, rising from 833 to 1,961.

You can click through the years in the pie chart below to see how the relative importance of different stations has changed over time. Flagstaff has gone from accounting for almost half of the state’s ridership in 2003 to about a third in 2014. And while the Southwest Chief previously account for a clear majority of the state’s ridership, the growth of ridership on the Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle means that Arizona’s ridership on its two routes is now split roughly fifty-fifty.

The increasing ridership on the Sunset Limited in Arizona is contributing to the route’s overall growth. The route originates in Los Angeles and previously ran as far as Orlando. Since Hurricane Katrina, Sunset Limited service has been suspended at 17 stations east of New Orleans, reducing the length of the route from 39 stations to just 22. But Sunset Limited ridership has been building tremendously since the storm, to the point that it is now set to reach its pre-hurricane high, even as a shorter route. My wife and I rode the Sunset Limited all the way from L.A. to New Orleans as part of our honeymoon in July 2007. It’s a great route, and I highly recommend it.

We’ll look at the Texas Eagle’s ridership next week when we get to Arkansas, and at the Southwest Chief’s ridership in a few months when we get to Kansas.

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