The Palm Springs Amtrak Station was quiet on a recent weekday morning during a three-month closure of the desert depot — no cars in the parking lot, no passengers waiting on the platform, and no Amtrak train in sight.
Piles of sand were pushed off to the side of the road leading into the parking lot and away from the train platform, in some places as tall as 4 feet high. The station, located on Palm Springs Station Road off North Indian Canyon Drive about a half-mile south of the freeway, is surrounded by open sandy desert. From the train platform, the freeway and a few gas stations along Garnet Road are visible to the north, while south of the station is a wide expanse of sand and windmills.
Even when train service is running normally, the Palm Springs station isn’t exactly the vision of a bustling train station.
The Sunset Limited train makes three round-trips a week between New Orleans and Los Angeles, stopping at Palm Springs six times a week in the middle of the night, and the limited service and inconvenient arrival and departure times have kept ridership numbers low at the local station compared to other Amtrak stations in the state.
Service resumed to the Amtrak station Aug. 25 after being suspended for more than three months starting on May 20. Service was temporarily halted to the Palm Springs station because “local sandstorms are causing sand drifts near the station, making it unsafe for our passengers,” according to a notice from Amtrak.
The closure left the Coachella Valley without rail service, but few even noticed.
“I grew up in snow country where snow would come down all over the tracks, and they managed to keep trains running in the snow. With the sand in Palm Springs, I just think nobody cared. My guess is nobody cared, and so Amtrak didn’t care, and Union Pacific didn’t care… So few people use it that nobody noticed,” Desert Hot Springs Councilmember Gary Gardner said.
Gardner found out that the train was closed in August, when friends wanted to take the train into Palm Springs to visit him, but were met with disappointing news.
“This shows how unfortunate rail service is in the valley. We have atrocious rail service for a valley of half a million people this close to a major metropolitan area… The train that passes through here only runs three times a week, and it stops very late at night or very, very early in the morning. That is not conducive for rail travel to and from the desert,” Gardner.
Amtrak directed questions about the station’s closure to Union Pacific, which owns the train tracks.
“Throughout the summer, we had an issue with sand on the tracks at the Palm Springs Amtrak Station due to windy conditions,” a spokesperson for Union Pacific said in an email to The Desert Sun. “We cleared the track multiple times, but the sand quickly blew back. The wind conditions were so bad that the City of Palm Springs closed the road that leads to the station several times.”
Near the station, Indian Canyon Drive is often closed to motorists due to blow sands.
“For safety reasons, we closed the station,” the statement continues. “It has since reopened, but only after it was determined to be safe due to present wind conditions. We understand that this is an unfortunate situation and that it has created transportation issues in the community, but safety is and will remain our top priority. We will continue to work with Amtrak and local officials to discuss possible long-term solutions to this problem.”
Palm Springs Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Middleton, who represents Palm Springs on the Riverside County Transportation Commission, said she didn’t receive a single question or complaint about the station’s closure.
Better train service in the works
Sunset Limited’s eastbound train heading toward Yuma stops in Palm Springs on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 12:36 a.m. The westbound train, which stops in Ontario and Pomona before reaching the Sunset Limited’s western terminus in Los Angeles, stops in Palm Springs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 2:02 a.m.
Just over 3,000 people board or depart the train at the Palm Springs station each year, an average of just eight or nine people per day. In the 2019 fiscal year, this made Palm Springs the second least-utilized Amtrak station in California, behind only the downtown Pomona station, which also services the Sunset Limited line with late-night times and had 1,607 Amtrak boardings and departures in the 2019 fiscal year.
But the Pomona train station also serves Metrolink, which takes passengers to Los Angeles and Riverside and counted over 71,000 Metrolink boardings in the 2019 calendar year, while Palm Springs only has Amtrak service.
The average number of boardings and departures for the 73 California Amtrak stations in operation for all of 2019 was 156,921.
The three-month closure of the Amtrak station — and the fact that not enough people rely on the train for the closure to make a big impact — is renewing calls for a daily train between Los Angeles and Palm Springs at normal daytime hours.
“The current schedule of train service is not convenient. Services are at a bad time and overall service is very limited, so I don’t know that a lot of people were personally inconvenienced by [the closure]. And what we need to do is make sure that people can depend on the service and on the station long-term, that should be the goal,” said Riverside County Transportation Commission Deputy Executive Director John Standiford.
The proposed Coachella Valley-San Gorgonio Pass Rail Corridor extends about 144 miles between Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley, with planned stops in Fullerton, Riverside, and the existing Palm Springs station. There also are potential sites for up to five new stations: one in Loma Linda or Redlands; another near Beaumont, Banning, and Cabazon; another in the mid-valley near Cathedral City, Thousand Palms, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert; and stops in Indio and Coachella.
The project inched forward earlier this summer, when the Riverside County Transportation Commission, in collaboration with the Federal Railroad Administration and Caltrans, published a draft environmental impact report for the Coachella Valley corridor. The project has been in the works since 1991, when the commission first looked at a feasibility study for a potential rail line between the Coachella Valley and Los Angeles.
The transportation commission is working to secure funding for the estimated $1 billion project, and the commission also must next complete a study on the proposed station locations and needed infrastructure improvements. Standiford said the commission plans on adopting the final environmental impact report by the end of this year.
Beyond that, the project’s timeline will depend on what funding the commission is able to secure.
In addition to providing a more convenient route between Palm Springs and Los Angeles, improving public transportation options is also an integral part of the state and region’s climate goals. Transportation makes up the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in California, and a key goal is reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled.
“With rail you can move a very, very large number of people, which has a positive environmental impact because it takes a significant number of automobiles off the roadway,” Middleton said.
The preferred build alternative identified in the Coachella Valley Corridor’s draft environmental impact report would reduce vehicle miles traveled by nearly 10.5 million miles in its first year of operation, a number that would increase to 17.4 million miles each year by the train’s 20th year in operation.
The Coachella Valley corridor would replace an estimated 107,344 vehicle trips in its first year, which would increase to 178,045 trips per year by its 20th year, according to the environmental impact report.
Middleton noted that the Senate-passed infrastructure bill, which is awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives, would provide $66 billion for Amtrak. This would help Amtrak fund several route expansion projects, including a proposed new Tucson, Phoenix, and Los Angeles route that would make one daily round-trip between Tucson and Los Angeles.
That route proposes California stops at the existing Palm Springs station, Indio, Rancho Mirage, Banning, Loma Linda, Riverside and Fullerton.
Amtrak’s California routes boast the passenger rail service’s higher ridership, Middleton noted. This includes the Pacific Surfliner, which runs from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, the San Joaquins, which runs from the San Francisco Bay Area to Bakersfield, and the Capitol Corridor, which runs from Auburn to San Jose.
“[The Los Angeles to Tucson route] is a game-changer in terms of what it could mean for rail in the Coachella Valley… I think this would be a very attractive route. Amtrak is extremely interested in making that a viable daily route, and if we make progress in that direction and with the passage of that infrastructure bill, we’re in a position to partner with Amtrak and make the permanent improvements that are needed to make Palm Springs a first-class, viable station,” Middleton said.
A boost for tourism?
For now, the Sunset Limited train is the only rail connection between the Coachella Valley and Los Angeles. An estimated 60% of the Coachella Valley’s roughly 13 million annual visitors come from the “drive market,” which includes the rest of Southern California, Phoenix and Las Vegas — areas from which visitors could presumably take a train instead of driving. But while many Palm Springs visitors come from Los Angeles, the late-night arrival and departure times make the train an unappealing option.
“If you look at the current train service, which is not conducive for anybody to utilize to go to and from Los Angeles from that station, my guess is that when it’s coming in at 12:30 at night from Los Angeles and then it’s going back at 2 in the morning, I just can’t imagine that we get a lot of people that are picking that route for the specific purpose of coming to Palm Springs or going from Palm Springs to Los Angeles. I would think that the numbers have got to be very small,” said Scott White, president and CEO of the Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau.
White said the Visitors Bureau occasionally fields inquiries from potential visitors about taking a train from Los Angeles to Palm Springs.
“We get the occasional phone call or email, usually from visitors from foreign countries, saying, ‘We’re trying to figure out how to take the train from Los Angeles to Palm Springs.’ It’s disheartening when you have to inform them that it can be done, it’s just not very easy. It’s only three days a week and it just makes us very frustrated,” White said.
He recommends they use the Flixbus, which launched a two-hour direct route between Palm Springs and Los Angeles in 2018. The Visitors Bureau is also advocating for daily rail service between the Coachella Valley and Los Angeles.
For commuters, other options include Sunline’s recently launched 10 Commuter Link, which runs from Indio to the San Bernardino Transit Center and Metrolink station on weekdays, with stops at the CSU San Bernardino Palm Desert campus, Beaumont, and the CSU San Bernardino campus. Once at the Metrolink station, riders can take the Metrolink train into Los Angeles.
Eight or nine passengers a day might seem like a meager figure for a popular destination like Palm Springs. But when Amtrak service to Palm Springs began in June 1997, the city’s transportation director at the time said “we’re not anticipating hordes” of passengers, according to prior Desert Sun coverage.
The city broke ground on the Amtrak station in February 1996, with plans for the station to initially service the Sunset Limited line with a long-term goal of providing service from Palm Springs to the Inland Empire and Los Angeles.
Phase one of the station’s construction cost $2.24 million, and included the station’s parking lot, platform, the passenger waiting shelter and road improvements. The initial $2.24 million cost was split between the state and the city, according to Desert Sun coverage at the time.
But phases two and three, which would have included an enclosed waiting area for passengers and a partnership with a private developer to build hotels, motels, and gas stations around the station, never came to fruition.
When Amtrak service to Palm Springs began in June 1997, the city’s transportation director at the time said “we’re not anticipating hordes” of passengers.
“If we get three or four people each time the train comes through, we’ll be exceeding our expectations,” then transportation director Al Smoot told the Desert Sun.
Middleton thinks the city can aim higher than three or four people a day with the proposals currently in the works. Noting that Interstate 10 is the only route connecting the Coachella Valley to the Inland Empire and Los Angeles, she recalled that an overturned tanker near Banning forced a freeway closure earlier this week, blocking the ability to head to or from the valley.
“That’s just the most recent example of the fragility of the I-10 route for traffic to and from Los Angeles to the Coachella Valley. If we had a reliable train route into Los Angeles at a good time of day, we will be extremely attractive with that route. It’s an immense priority,” Middleton said.
Erin Rode covers the western Coachella Valley cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs. Reach her at [email protected]