Hearings Held to Rally Support for SW Chief

Rail passenger advocates made a pitch recently during public hearings to save the Southwest Chief, a train that is in jeopardy due to route issues.

Hearings were held in Pueblo, Colo., on Sept. 14 and in Garden City, Kansas, on Sept. 19.

The hearings also drew many public officials of both major political parties. Supporters of the Chicago-Los Angeles train are seeking to get the states of Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado to contribute funding to maintain a portion of the route that is owned by BNSF but no longer sees extensive freight traffic use.

BNSF has said that it will no longer maintain the track in question to a condition to support passenger train speeds.

Bob Stewart, chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, spoke at the Garden City hearing and cited the importance of rail transportation.

“The key date for the Southwest Chief is Jan. 20, 2016, because that is the day that the contract between BNSF and Amtrak expires,” Stewart said. “BNSF is proposing that they’ll need $200 million over 10 years for upgrading the line and maintenance over three states — Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas, each of which would have to put up $4 million per year for 10 years,” Stewart said.

According to Stewart, the Southwest Chief route currently has just one train a day in each direction, yet attracts 355,000 passengers per year, or 350 million passenger miles.

“We have a mobility crisis in this country, especially when you get outside of the major cities. The airlines are cutting back service,” Stewart said. “We see this problem around the country, where medium-sized cities have lost airline service, bus service and where Amtrak is their one connection, their one link to the rest of the country. We’re going to have 100 million more people between now and 2050. How are we going to move them around? We have an aging population, too, that doesn’t want to go through all the hassle of the airport, or the cost.”

He said that airlines and highways receive much higher government subsidies than the rails do.

“We’re all for good airlines and highways. Don’t misunderstand me. But we think the rails need to get their fair share of the support that they need,” he said. “Your state (legislators) and your federal congressman should know how important this train is. Think about it, if you guys happen to lose that American Airlines flight, this train is going to become even more important to the citizens of Garden City as a means of connecting with other cities.”

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