Southwest Chief Still Not Out of Danger

The threat to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief may have eased, but rail passenger advocates say the train potentially is still in danger of being discontinued or rerouted.

Amtrak has said that the Chicago-Los Angeles train will continue on its present route through western Kansas, southeast Colorado and northern New Mexico so long as it appears that political progress is being made to reach a funding plan for track rehabilitation.

Amtrak recently said that the Chief will continue using its current route past the Jan. 1, 2016, expiration date of the contract with BNSF for track maintenance

The route used by the Chief is a lightly used freight route and BNSF had said that it would not maintain the tracks to better than 30 mph speeds.

Amtrak had asked state officials in New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas to contribute $4 million each a year for 10 years to fund repair and maintenance of 632 miles the of track between Newton, Kan., and Lamy, N.M.

Amtrak and BNSF had agreed to each contribute an equipment amount each year for the next decade.

Deteriorating tracks conditions have meant in recent years that the Chief must operate was less than the optimal speed of 79 mph.

Amtrak is facing significant increases in its costs for repair and maintenance because BNSF no longer runs much freight on the Kansas and Colorado lines and has no freight service on the New Mexico portion of the line.

Last year Garden City, Kan., received a $12.5 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant to be applied toward the track work.

At the same time, Amtrak, BNSF and the Kansas Department of Transportation contributed $9 million toward track rehabilitation

Another $360,000 was pledged by Colorado and Kansas counties, communities and advocacy groups.  BNSF said it would cover maintenance costs for the newly repaired segment, which has relieved Amtrak of some of the major maintenance costs it would have faced in 2016.

Rebuilding of 45 to 50 miles of track in the worst condition in Kansas and Colorado will be done this year.  BNSF has already begun tie replacement at its own expense in anticipation of laying new rail.

However, New Mexico has yet to pony up any money for track work. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has agreed to pay for a $150,000 study of the Chief’s costs and benefits.

The New Mexico Department of Transportation has said it will seek a TIGER grant for track repairs.

Colorado officials are hoping that enough time can be saved on the schedule to add a stop in Pueblo which would bring the train within 40 miles of Colorado Springs and open an array of new tourism opportunities to Amtrak passengers.

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