Happening Now

A Wild Pitch*

March 10, 2023

by TJ Girsch / Rail Passengers Board Vice Chair

Those of you who know me know that one of my favorite pastimes is watching baseball games. I’m not the kind of rabid fan who can recite stats or tell you who played second base for the 1982 Brewers without looking it up†, but there are few pleasures quite like relaxing and taking in a game. So when there’s an opportunity to cross over between baseball and one of my other passions, passenger rail, I’ll jump at the chance. That’s what happened back in 2018, when Jim Mathews asked me to help plan that year’s baseball-themed Summer By Rail trip: I ended up designing the entire itinerary (two, in fact, with different start points and start dates).

This year, another such opportunity seemed to present itself. The World Baseball Classic – in which, unlike the “World Series,” the rest of the world is actually invited to participate – has returned after a two year, pandemic-related delay. Group play begins this week in four cities, including two in the US: Phoenix and Miami. Both of those cities have direct ties to ongoing work your Association is doing, and the US potentially plays in both of them. So when I started writing this a couple of months ago, it was intended to be a pitch: I would try to raise money (and, as appropriate, points) to take a member of the field team to follow the US team in the tournament. Call it WBC By Rail.

We’d start in Phoenix, where the US team plays its group play rounds. Assuming the US would advance, we’d move on to Miami, where the quarterfinals, semifinals and ultimately the final will be played. And along the way, we’d highlight issues that we’re working hard every day to fix. Among them:

  • Many of the trains are timed so that a same-day transfer isn’t possible, undermining the “network effect”; you’d have to spend a night in the transfer city
  • There’s no direct rail service to Phoenix; the closest you can get is Maricopa, with an hour-long bus connection at the end
  • That Maricopa service is on the three-times-per-week Sunset Limited, with that meager schedule making it a challenge to plan travel for events like this
  • There’s no Gulf Coast service at all to allow a reasonable connection to the Silver trains that serve Miami
  • The Silver trains don’t actually serve Miami; they terminate in Hialeah, which is nowhere near anything and doesn’t even have good transit connections

Unfortunately, my pitch died before I was even able to put it to (virtual) paper. The trip I was planning wasn’t just cost-prohibitive; it was logistically impossible. But it’s a great way to illustrate the shortcomings of both the current schedule and the major gaps in service. The first games in Phoenix start on March 11, meaning that we’d need to arrive there by the evening of the 10th. Working backward from that, here are the options I came up with from my home in Boston:

  • Lake Shore Limited to Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited (total travel time: 3 days, 12 hours, 22 minutes):
    • Depart Boston on the LSL 12:50 PM on Monday, March 6, arriving Chicago 10:12 AM on Tuesday, March 7 – 3:43 layover
    • Depart Chicago 1:45 PM on the TE on Tuesday, March 7, arriving San Antonio 9:55 PM – 4:50 layover while the train merges with the SL
    • Depart San Antonio 2:45 AM on the TE/SL on Thursday, March 9, arriving Maricopa 9:52 PM
    • Transfer to thruway connection, arriving in Phoenix at 11:12 PM on Thursday March 9
  • Northeast Regional to Crescent to Sunset Limited (total travel time: 3 days, 16 hours, 37 minutes):
    • Depart Boston 8:35 AM on the NER on Monday, March 6, arriving New York 12:54 PM – 1:21 layover
    • Depart New York 2:15 PM on the Crescent on Monday, March 6, arriving New Orleans 9:02 PM on Tuesday, March 7
    • Spend the night in New Orleans
    • Depart New Orleans 9:00 AM on Wednesday, March 8, arriving Maricopa 9:52 PM on Thursday, March 9
    • Transfer to thruway connection, arriving in Phoenix at 11:12 PM on Thursday March 9
  • Lake Shore Limited to Southwest Chief to bus connection (total travel time varies: at least 2 days, 17 hours, 54 minutes):
    • Depart Boston on the LSL 12:50 PM on Wednesday, March 8, arriving Chicago 10:12 AM on Thursday, March 9 – 4:48 layover
    • Depart Chicago on the SWC 2:50 PM on Thursday, March 9, arriving Flagstaff 9:32 PM on Friday, March 10
      • Option 1: Depart Flagstaff 3:20 AM on Amtrak Thruway service, arriving Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport at 6:54 AM
      • Option 2: Spend the night in Flagstaff, Depart Flagstaff 10:53 AM on Saturday, March 11, arriving Phoenix at 1:45 PM

As you can see, none of those options is particularly appealing, and most of them involve leaving home five full days before the first game I’d attend. I finally looked at flying to LA and taking the Sunset in the opposite direction. That works a lot better, since I could leave Boston on Friday morning and still make the Saturday evening game. But it felt like cheating, and in any case, the rest of the itinerary simply couldn’t work.

The US plays games in Phoenix on Saturday, March 11; Sunday, March 12; Monday, March 13; and Wednesday, March 15. The Quarterfinals begin in Miami on Friday, March 17. I’ll spare you the gory itinerary details this time‡, but thanks to the non-daily Sunset and the complete lack of Gulf Coast service, there’s no direct way to take the train from Phoenix to Miami, and absolutely no way to do it in two days. Forgoing the Wednesday game in Phoenix and instead departing on Tuesday isn’t an option because the eastbound SL doesn’t leave the Phoenix area on Tuesday. The choices would be to depart Monday and miss two US games or depart Wednesday, far too late to make the Friday quarterfinals in time.

What began as a plan to highlight the major shortcomings of current passenger train schedules by riding the rails and showing people quickly fell apart. But even as a thought exercise, it does an excellent job of demonstrating the challenges and shows why your Association continues to fight every day for at least once daily service – preferably more frequent than that – on all routes. It also shows why we fight for convenient service to major cities that are unserved (e.g., Phoenix, Columbus, Las Vegas, arguably Miami) and underserved (e.g., Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Charleston, San Antonio and on and on). It’s why your continued support is so important in helping us improve and expand passenger trains to more places for more people.



* – See what I did there?

† – Without looking it up, it was Jim Gantner. But I did have to look up who currently plays 2B for the Brewers (Luis Urias)

‡ -- The gory details: Depart Phoenix 4:15AM (!) via Thruway connection on Monday, March 13, transferring to the SL and arriving New Orleans 9:52 PM on Tuesday, March 14; spend the night in NOLA; depart New Orleans 9:15 AM on the Crescent on Wednesday, March 15, arriving at Washington Union Station at 1:47 PM on Thursday, March 16; Depart WAS on the Silver Star at 3:04 PM (tight connection!), arriving Miami (Hialeah) at 6:35 PM on Friday, March 17. First pitch: 7 PM. There’s an alternate final leg on the Silver Meteor that departs WAS on the Silver Meteor at 7:24 PM on the 16th and arrives in Hialeah at 6:59 PM on the 17th. Even if on time, a big if, neither option arrives with anywhere near enough time to make the game.