Another Battle for the SW Chief Underway

A few years ago Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief was in danger of being rerouted or seeing its route shortened.

The culprit at the time was a decision by host railroad BNSF to only do minimal maintenance on the Chief’s route in parts of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico that it seldom used for its freight trains.

The route was not being abandoned, but the top speed for the Chief would be no more than 30 mph.

The communities and the states involved worked together to secure TIGER grants to rebuild the tracks to maintain passenger train speed.

Amtrak and BNSF agreed to chip in funds to help pay for the track work, which is ongoing.

Now the Chief is threatened again and this time it is Amtrak that is holding the dagger over the Chief’s head.

Last March Colfax County in New Mexico landed a TIGER grant to help pay for the continuing track work project.

But in a letter sent to various public officials by an Amtrak government affairs officer, the passenger carrier is threatening to withhold its matching funds until the entire cost of the rehabilitation project are spelled out.

Further, the letter lays out what appears to be a preview of the case Amtrak will make to justify discontinuing the train.

The letter, written by Patrick Edmond, Amtrak’s director of government affairs, describes ridership of the Chief as in steady decline and said it is losing $50 million a year for a revenue to cost recovery percentage of 47 percent.

Edmond said the Chief carried 364,000 passengers in fiscal year 2017, which ended last Sept. 30.

He also contended that the Chief was only 40 percent full most of the time and that it ran on time only 45.5 percent of the time at all stations.

What Amtrak apparently wants is a comprehensive financial plan for who will pay for the rebuilding of the rest of the route as well as funding continued maintenance of the Chief route to which the carrier, host railroad, communities served and states are all parties.

“Amtrak is not prepared to address these substantial infrastructure needs for this segment of the Chief on [a] piecemeal basis, particularly on a right of way that it does not own,” Edmond wrote in his letter.

“If the states and local communities desire to retain this segment for operation, there needs to be a comprehensive plan and commitments from other stakeholders and it must address the long term viability of the route, from Hutchinson, KS to Isleta, NM, in order to ensure the route’s performance doesn’t degrade.”

In the meantime, Amtrak is withholding a $3 million matching grant that it pledged toward the TIGER funds that Colfax County has landed.

This recent action prompted former Amtrak President Joseph Boardman to send an email message to various public officials saying that Amtrak’s behavior in the Chief case is a first step toward eviscerating the carrier’s long-distance network.

“For me the Southwest Chief has really become the battleground for the National System. I might be wrong, but I don’t think so,” Boardman wrote.

He said that based on communications he has seen Amtrak will seek to truncate the national network into a series of corridors with long-distance trains divided into city pairs of service that Amtrak will seek to get funded by the states served.

“City pairs could be fine but a connected National System on the surface of the United States is and should continue to be our national policy. And if it is changed it should be informed by both hearings and explanations to Congress,” Boardman said.

Boardman had been supportive of previous TIGER grant applications successfully sought by Garden City, Kansas, and La Junta, Colorado.

Boardman negotiated an agreement with BNSF for the host railroad to maintain the tracks for 20 years at its expense after they were rebuilt with funding from Amtrak and the states and communities served.

Trains magazine passenger train correspondent Robert Johnston said Amtrak’s stance in the Southwest Chief case is curious because it has accepted piecemeal funding and planning for improvements to the Northeast Corridor.

Edmond’s letter notes that the section of the Chief’s route in question is not slated to receive positive train control and that Amtrak is unable to bear the cost of its installation.

Earlier this year Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson told Congress that the carrier would not operate over tracks lacking PTC installation by Dec. 31, 2019.

Although Amtrak has said it is conducting a route-by-route safety risk assessment of routes that are not required by law to have PTC or may have a Federal Administration waiver from the PTC mandate, it has hinted that it may choose to suspend service over those routes.

The aforementioned route of the Chief is one of those routes.

Edmond’s letter describes the Chief as “unique in that it is the only route operated by Amtrak on its entire National Network where there is a significant section of infrastructure owned by a host (BNSF) and that is solely used by Amtrak and no other railroads.”

That segment extends from Jansen, Colorado, to a point known as Madrid 20 miles west of Lamy, New Mexico.

“Amtrak’s maintenance costs on the solely-used sections total are approximately $3 million per year. Critical capital investments on the line require more than $50 million in the coming years,” Edmonds wrote noting that does not include the cost of PTC.

For his part, Boardman sees letters such as the one Edmonds sent as part of a strategy by Amtrak “to do surgical communications in a way that does not provide a transparent discussion of what they are doing; instead the plan seems to be to keep the recommendations and briefings small and isolated from each other, just the opposite of transparent.”

The overall objective of Amtrak’s current management, Boardman fears, is the elimination of the long-distance route network as it is currently constituted.

“I think the CEO and the board [of directors] have drawn a line in the sand at the foot of the Raton Pass, believing that they can convince western politicians that providing service on the SWC is ineffective and too costly, making the Southwest Chief as their first major target to cut,” Boardman said.

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