Arizona Passenger Rail—More Than Just Light Rail, Streetcar and Trolley?

Arizona Passenger Rail—More Than Just Light Rail, Streetcar and Trolley?

Historically, Arizona metropolitan areas were served by many rail modes not unlike other American cities. As the automobile age gained momentum and influence, those passenger rail programs were derailed. Streetcar programs in Phoenix disappeared, and only a historic trolley continued operation in Tucson. As connections to other metros in other states has waned, the final significant blow to passenger rail in Central and Southern Arizona was struck with the elimination of Amtrak service to Phoenix in 1996—when Union Pacific closed the connecting rail infrastructure between Yuma and Phoenix forcing Amtrak to resort to mainline services only. But times are changing…

Passenger Rail programs in Arizona have enjoyed a rebirth in the last decade, with three specific programs moving from planning into reality. METRO opened its program of light rail transit connecting the cities of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa in 2008 after nearly two decades of planning, design, engineering, and construction. Tucson’s Modern Street Car program is set for opening in 2013, after nearly a decade of preparations. The city of Tempe is currently planning a similar system and seeking Federal participation. Each of these programs highlights the need for high capacity urban and regional mobility solutions that can provide short, mid-range, and longer distance trips without the need for all things auto—from fuel to parking!

Each program is characterized differently and meets a need for certain kinds of trips, serving populations that require mobility options without some of the personal investment. Find out more about each of them by searching their links below.

BUT, there’s more to passenger rail than just those suburban and urban trips. Of late, Arizona has become more aggressive in its interest in more robust passenger rail options, from commuter rail in the major metropolitan areas to intercity rail linking the Tucson and Phoenix metropolitan areas, to high speed rail programs that could link Arizona’s major metropolitan areas with those of neighboring states, including Las Vegas, California cities like San Diego and Los Angeles, and eastward towards Albuquerque and beyond.

Each of these concepts serves a different market, and each requires different solutions, whether in terms of right of way, technology, and market solutions.

The commuter rail market in the Phoenix metropolitan area has now a clear definition and an initial concept of service area, service needs, and potential alignments. The Maricopa Association of Governments, (MAG) has completed initial studies and continues to drill down into potential solutions. Funding remains a challenge, as does developing the political will and private sector partnerships necessary to initiate demonstration services, starter lines, and infrastructure improvements. The Tucson metropolitan area, although not as far advanced as Phoenix, has also done preliminary studies to identify key needs and issues.

Similarly, the intercity rail market in Arizona has focused on a solution to connect the metropolitan Tucson and Phoenix areas through a series of preliminary studies hosted by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). ADOT has also completed an FRA compliant state rail plan, and has included intercity rail options as part of its long range planning effort. ADOT is now engaged in an intercity rail AA/EIS in partnership with the FRA and FTA to identify corridor solutions through the examination of nearly a dozen alternatives connecting the two metros. Funding further efforts also remains a challenge, as does developing partnerships with private sector rail, land, and business interests, along with developing strategies that incorporate the interests and requirements of the Arizona Land Department, the Arizona Corporation Commission, and other governmental bodies.

And, as a starter, do not minimize the role that AMTRAK plays in providing the current larger market of connections to other metropolitan regions outside of Arizona. AMTRAK currently provides limited connections to California to the west and New Mexico and places further east through services on the Sunset Limited via the Union Pacific RR (New Orleans to LA via Tucson and Maricopa) and the Sunset Chief via the BNSF RR (Chicago to LA via Flagstaff). Although the Phoenix metropolitan region is not served by AMTRAK (the closest connection is at the city of Maricopa, in Pinal county south of the metro region, Tucson and Flagstaff both enjoy regular connections through AMTRAK to the west and east. It is fair to say that services are less than sufficient, though. Connections are inconvenient, often times late at night or on an undependable schedule, and in some cases do not provide regular daily services. Travel is challenged because of long travel times and schedule adherence, because those AMTRAK services utilize shared right-of-way usage with private sector railroads which own and operate the right-of-ways. Achieving and maintaining maximum travel speed is significantly reduced by these conflicts. Hence, utilization as a reasonable connection to cities outside of Arizona is significantly limited. As a result, AMTRAK service does not meet any definition of high speed connection. But AMTRAK is making noise about improving services along the Sunset Limited, better serving the southern half of Arizona.

Finally, high speed services in Arizona are not outside the realm of possibility, though. ADOT, MAG, other agencies, and the private sector are all engaged in developing solutions through a variety of multi-state or national organizations that are focused on identification of long term solutions. As the national discussion about transportation policy expands to passenger rail solutions, Arizona has carved out its place in those discussions with active, sometimes aggressive positions that reflect the significant need of western states.

The Arizona Transit Association is actively engaged in providing education and advocating for passenger rail programs through its standing committee on Rail Programs, chaired by Board member Marc Soronson (HDR). To find out more about becoming a member of AzTA and participating with this committee, go to