A battle being waged over an Amtrak route in the mountains and high plains of the West could hold implications for the future of Amtrak service from coast to coast.
That’s because Some rail passenger service watchers believe that Amtrak is using the Southwest Chief routing issue to sidestep its congressional mandate to subsidize long-distance trains — those traveling more than 750 miles — with federal funds.
Ostensibly, the fight for the Southwest Chief seems unrelated to that. It would seem to be a simple matter of a railroad not wishing to maintain a lightly-used route to passenger trains speeds and telling Amtrak to pony up the money if it wants to continue to operate at 79 miles per hour on the route.
This story has played out before in several places, including in Ohio when Conrail said in the 1980s that it didn’t wish to maintain the Fort Wayne Line to passenger trains speeds. At the time, the former Pennsylvania Railroad route hosted the Chicago-New York Broadway Limited and the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited.
The end result was that Amtrak rerouted the Capitol Limited to its current route via Cleveland and the Broadway Limited to a CSX route via Akron and Youngstown that had been freight only since Amtrak’s beginning in 1971.
But the Southwest Chief route battle may be different.
Amtrak has proposed that it along with BNSF and the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas form a partnership to fund track maintenance of the former Santa Fe mainline in western Kansas, southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico. Each would pay more than $40 million a year for a decade.
Legislators and local officials in towns and districts served by the Southwest Chief have introduced legislation or pressured for state funding of the track maintenance needed to keep the Chief on its present route.
But New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has sounded the alarm about how the federal government is abrogating its legal responsibility to fund a national rail network.
The Republican governor has said in recent months that Amtrak is funded by Congress and any agreement should not leave New Mexico taxpayers with a large bill.
“According to the New Mexico [Department of Transportation], the state has never provided state funds for Amtrak service,” Martinez’s office said last month. “We’re willing to work together on this issue, but any agreement needs to take that reality into account.”
In 2013, Congress appropriated $1.5 billion to Amtrak with $71 million of that amount clawed back due to sequestration, a Nov. 13 Congressional Budget Office memo said.
“All told, the government covers almost all of Amtrak’s capital costs as well as more than 10 percent of its operating costs,” the memo said. “In 1970, when the Congress established Amtrak, it anticipated subsidizing the railroad for only a short time, until it became self-supporting. Since then, however, the federal subsidies to Amtrak have totaled about $45 billion.”
The year 2013 also saw a series of battles in statehouses over funding of Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles.
A law adopted by Congress in 2008 pressured Amtrak to reduce its dependence on federal funding by reaching agreements with states for money for short-haul trains by Oct. 1, 2013. Amtrak announced on Oct. 15 that it had successfully negotiated contracts with 19 states to increase state control and funding of 28 passenger rail routes.
In July 2013, Amtrak announced a $151 billion plan for improvements to routes in its Northeast Corridor, where it owns the tracks.
“I believe what they’re trying to do is set precedent to have the long-distance routes subject to state supplemental payments, because they cannot get enough money out of Congress to continue long-distance trains,” said Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Oklahoma.
Amtrak’s long-distance trains are its biggest money-losers some reports say.
The Southwest Chief had operating costs of $114.5 million in 2012 that resulted in a $62.6 million shortfall, according to a Brookings Institute analysis of Amtrak data. It’s a performance on par with most Amtrak long-distance routes.
Yet the long-distance routes are popular and continue to see increased ridership. From 1997 to 2012, patronage of the Southwest Chief increased by almost 100,000 passengers from 1997 to 2012, or 38 percent, according to the report.
Stair pondered for a minute the odds that governments along the route of the Chief will ante up the money needed to fix the tracks that is now uses.
“Is Amtrak sincere in wanting to keep the Southwest Chief, or is this simply this decade’s sacrificial train to Congress?” he asked.
Amtrak has “had no discussions about discontinuing the service between Chicago and Los Angeles,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said. “The options on the table are between staying where we are, which is our preference, or rerouting, which is not our preference.”
There are other options that few have talked about openly and Amtrak has not acknowledged. The Southwest Chief could be truncated to a Chicago-Kansas City train or it could be discontinued altogether. In that case, Amtrak might bring back the Desert Wind, a section of the Chicago-San Francisco Bay California Zephyr that carried through cars for Los Angeles and operated via Las Vegas.
The Desert Wind was discontinued in a 1995 service cutback that also saw the end of the Broadway Limited although a replacement train, the Three Rivers operated for a few years via Akron in the early 2000s between Chicago and New York before it ended when Amtrak got out of the mail and express business.
It is too soon to say what the outcome will be of the Southwest Chief battle. Amtrak’s contract to use the BNSF route in question via Albuquerque continues until Jan. 1, 2016. After that date, BNSF has said that it will only maintain the track to a top speed of 30 miles per hour.
In theory, Amtrak could continue to use the route, but it has indicated it would not.
Amtrak has indicated that funding from New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas needs to be approved by the end of 2014 even though it won’t be needed for another year.
That’s because Amtrak said it could take at least a year to plan a new route for the Southwest Chief.
At this point, the battle of the Southwest Chief is about track maintenance fees. Amtrak hasn’t said that it wants any of the eight states served by the Chief to help pay the train’s operating costs. At least not yet.
But could it be a precedent for asking states to pay infrastructure costs of long-distance trains?
One key difference between the Southwest Chief route battle and the situation with the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited is that the latter trains use well-traveled and maintained Norfolk Southern and CSX freight routes.
Ross Capon, the executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers has said that he suspects that neither Amtrak or BNSF wants to see the Southwest Chief move off its current route.
Putting the Chief on the Transcon route via Amarillo, Texas, would mean seeing yet another train on a route that is already one of BNSF’s busiest and one where the railroad has sunk millions of dollars to expand its capacity. True, the Southwest Chief uses the Transcon west of Albuquerque and everything seems to move just fine.
But in the BNSF executive suite, the current Southwest Chief route is a matter of simple economics and politics. The railroad doesn’t need the ex-Santa Fe route in western Kansas except for local freight service.
BNSF officials no doubt have asked why they should continue to pay to maintain track that it doesn’t use all that much to passenger train speeds. Hence, the decision was made to put the squeeze on the states for money to fix the tracks.
Amtrak has been the front man during the fight over public funding of the track maintenance of the Southwest Chief route. BNSF has deliberately stayed in the background and said very little when asked about the situation. It would prefer that the narrative remain focused on this being an Amtrak issue.
Still, in railroad executive suites and state departments of transportation across the country, officials are probably watching the Southwest Chief funding fight with some interest because it could become a precursor of things to come.
Rail passenger advocates elsewhere should be watching it, too.