Posts Tagged ‘Saving the Southwest Chief’

Senate OKs Funding for Passenger Rail, Seeks to Keep S.W. Chief Intact

August 3, 2018

The U.S. Senate has approved on a 92-6 vote $16.1 billion for billion for public transit and intercity passenger rail while also seeking to preserve Amtrak’s national network.

The legislation provides $2.5 billion for intercity passenger rail grants, which are $1.3 billion more than authorized by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act for Fiscal Year 2019.

The funding is contained within the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2019.

The bill also funds the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grants program at $2.5 billion, marking a $92 million decrease from FY18, according to a statement issued by nonprofit advocacy group Transportation for America.

The legislation allocates $1 billion for the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development grants program.

The bill also specifically directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to administer the program as it was under 2016 in response to attempted changes that would have added “greater financial and administrative burdens on local communities.”

As for Amtrak’s national network, the Senate approved an amendment by senators Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) to provide $50 million to maintain the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

The amendment would provide the resources needed for maintenance and safety improvements along the route as well as “effectively reverse” Amtrak’s plans decision to substitute buses for rail service between Albuquerque and western Kansas.

It is designed to compel Amtrak to fulfill its promise of providing matching funds for the grant won by Colfax County, New Mexico, to rebuild the route.

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Senate Prodding Amtrak on S.W. Chief Route

July 30, 2018

The U.S. Senate is turning up the heat on Amtrak to save the Southwest Chief in its current form.

The Senate approved by a 95-4 vote a “sense of Congress” amendment to a fiscal 2019 transportation funding bill that urges Amtrak to maintain its national route system.

Another group of 10 senators wrote to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson to demand that the carrier make good on an earlier agreement to provide a $3 million match to an already-approved $16 million federal Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery grant to Colfax County, New Mexico, that is to be used to rebuild the tracks used by the Chief.

The letter suggests that Amtrak also apply for capital funding to rebuild the route that could come from the $318 million Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement program.

“Replacing train service through rural communities with buses is troubling, particularly for a quasi-governmental entity entrusted with an important public transportation mission,” the letter said. “The suspension of service along the Southwest Chief route raises serious questions as to whether passenger rail service will be eliminated in rural communities across the country. The connectivity is vital to the people and communities” because it is “the only affordable alternative to highways for many of our citizens and is a critical link to public and private services in larger cities along the route for rural residents.”

The letter came in response to a meeting Anderson held with members of the congressional delegations of several states served by the Chief in which he said Amtrak is considering moving passenger by bus between Albuquerque and western Kansas.

Anderson said Amtrak can’t afford to use a portion of a BNSF route of which it is the sole user and which does not have positive train control.

The letter to Anderson called for him to take “prompt attention to this matter,” but did not say what would occur if Amtrak follows through on its bus bridge idea.

RPA Launches S.W. Chief Campaign

July 25, 2018

The Rail Passengers Association is launching a campaign to seek to pressure Amtrak into keeping the Southwest Chief intact.

The campaign comes in the wake of news that Amtrak is planning to bus passengers rather than transport them by rail between western Kansas and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

RPA noted that the bus bridge would affect nine stations, leave a 500-mile gap in Amtrak’s rail network and take 7.5 hours to traverse point to point.

The rail passenger advocacy group argues that as much as 70 percent of the Chief’s revenue will be lost.

However, RPA sees the battle to save the Chief as part of a larger effort to save Amtrak’s national network generally.

“The campaign is policy-based and will enable members to make their individual and collective voices heard,” RPA wrote on its website. “Raising awareness in traditional and social media, we’ll generate a firestorm of support for the Southwest Chief and the National Network and show Congress and Amtrak leadership just what losing train service would mean to real Americans.

As part of the campaign, RPA plans to reach out to U.S. senators,mayors, allies, friends and supporters of rail passenger service.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a critical junction concerning the fate of the National Network. Whether it is the federal budget that makes Amtrak possible, or this very new threat to a part of the system, we have to take action. We appreciate your full support as we move forward with our efforts to protect the Southwest Chief and preserve the National Network,” RPA wrote.

More information about the campaign is available at www.railpassengers.org/swc

Another Senator Describes Meeting With Anderson to Discuss the S.W. Chief as Unsatisfactory

June 30, 2018

Add U.S. Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) to the list of those who were not satisfied with the meeting they recently had with Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson pertaining to the future of the Southwest Chief.

It was during that meeting, which also included elected officials from Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado, that Amtrak unveiled its plans to operate charter buses in lieu of the train between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Garden City, Kansas.

During his presentation, Anderson cited the high cost of installing positive train control on a portion of the Chief’s route as the justification for the bus service.

Anderson also mentioned the high costs of maintaining the route.

Moran, through, said he is not supportive of this position and will push Amtrak to provide an appropriate level of passenger service.

The meeting had come about because the congressional delegations from the three states had been dismayed by an Amtrak announcement that it would not provide $3 million as a matching grant to a federal TIGER grant obtained by Colfax County, New Mexico, to be used to rebuild the tracks used by the Chief in that state.

In a letter to public officials along the route Amtrak said he wanted to see a comprehensive funding plan to rebuild the entire route in western Kansas, southeast Colorado and northern New Mexico before committing the money.

Also attending the meeting were senators Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), Cory Gardner (R-Colorado), Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) and Tom Udall (D-New Mexico).

Moran described the meeting as unsatisfactory and said the senators “wanted to make it clear that from our perspective they needed to keep their commitment. Nothing came from the meeting that said they were willing to do that. The result we were looking for did not occur.

“The end result of the meeting with Mr. Anderson and a bunch of his staff was certainly no suggestion that their mind had been changed,” Moran said. “Then the conversation devolved into a slide presentation and conversation by Mr. Anderson about the financial challenges of the system and systemic issues of the current Southwest Chief route.”

Amtrak contends that the cost of installing PTC on 219 miles of BNSF track of which the Chief is the sole user in Colorado and New Mexico would cost $55 million.

The carrier said it didn’t want to be involved in the installation of PTC on another section of tracks used by the Chief in New Mexico that are owned by commuter operator Rail Runner.

Moran said the actions that he is considering taking to pressure Amtrak include placing a hold on two nominations for the Amtrak board of directors and placing language in an appropriations bill that would require consultation with affected communities before Amtrak can make any changes to its “terms of service.”

Heinrich of New Mexico criticized Amtrak for not being upfront about its plans to institute the bus bridge.

Like Moran, Heinrich described the meeting with Anderson as unsatisfactory.

“The lack of transparency by Amtrak management about its changing position on the Southwest Chief is deeply troubling, particularly for a government-sponsored enterprise entrusted with an important public transportation mission,” Heinrich said. “We have a strong, bipartisan coalition working together to protect the Southwest Chief and we are going to do everything we can to ensure its continued success.”

In the meantime, Trains magazine reported that BNSF officials have said it remains committed to honoring its financial and maintenance commitment to the Chief’s route as soon as Amtrak honors its $3 million TIGER grant match.

“We stand ready to proceed with our match and the same arrangement — maintaining the line at a Class 4 (79 mph maximum speed) for 20 years once all the bolted rail is replaced — for this TIGER 9 grant as we have promised for the TIGER 6 and 7 grants,” said Rich Wessler, BNSF Railway’s Director of Passenger Operations,

Amtrak had matched TIGER funding provided for two previous projects to rebuild the route used by the Chief.

Some local officials who have championed saving the Chief now feel betrayed by Amtrak.

“Amtrak came to us years ago and asked us for help, and this is what we get?” said Rick Klein, city manager of La Junta, Colorado. “The only way rural America becomes flyover country is if Amtrak makes it. The U.S. is not a nation of coasts or sharply defined corridors. It’s one nation.”  Klein said he received personal assurances from BNSF assistant vice president D. J. Mitchell that BNSF will provide its share of funding once Amtrak hands over its funding share.

N.M. Senator Rips Plans for S.W. Chief

June 23, 2018

A New Mexico lawmaker has blasted Amtrak’s proposals to truncate the Southwest Chief and described a meeting held with Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson to discuss the Chief as having been unproductive.

“I think this was one of the most unproductive meetings with an agency level official that I’ve ever experienced,” said U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich. “To learn that not only are they planning to pull back their commitment to the TIGER grant, but that they’re going to abandon the route I think is just outrageous.”

Anderson recently met with the congressional delegation from New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas to describe a proposal to operate the Chicago-Los Angeles train between Los Angeles and Albuquerque, New Mexico; and between Chicago and Dodge City, Kansas, or La Junta, Colorado.

Passengers would be transported on charter buses between Albuquerque and La Junta/Dodge City.

The meeting with Anderson had been requested by members of Congress after word got out about Amtrak’s plans.

Anderson told the lawmakers that the signals and track between Raton Pass and Lamy, New Mexico, are outdated.

Rebuilding those is the purpose of U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER grant that was won by Colfax County, New Mexico.

But Amtrak has said it won’t provide its $3 million match to the grant without a “comprehensive plan from other stakeholders.”

Amtrak contends that passengers will still be able to travel to rail between Chicago and Los Angeles and to all intermediate points, but part of their journey may be on a bus.

Heinrich said the fight over the Chief is far from over.

“There are very active conversations going on right now to figure out what our appropriations strategy is and to push back forcibly and vigorously,” he said. “We’ve had to fight for the Southwest Chief before and we will fight for the Southwest Chief again.”

In a statement, Amtrak  said that it is considering “various service options for the Southwest Chief in response to the significant host railroad costs facing Amtrak for continued use of the middle portion of the route between Dodge City and Albuquerque.”

The statement cited significant costs that Amtrak faces to rebuild the track, which is owned by BNSF but used only by Amtrak in some places.

It also said Amtrak wants to continue providing transportation to all communities served by the route.

“Amtrak is thoroughly analyzing the route and considering the appropriate strategies for enhancing safety for operations after the December 2018 federal deadline for Positive Train Control,” the statement said.

See an earlier related post below on this subject.

 

Senators Prod Amtrak to Match Federal Grant

June 11, 2018

Two U.S. senators are trying to prod Amtrak into matching federal grant money obtained by a New Mexico county to be used to rebuild the route of the Southwest Chief.

Senators Tom Udal (D-New Mexico) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) offered an amendment to the 2019 Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations bill that would “strongly encourage Amtrak to consult with stakeholders before adding conditions to any grant funds.”

The amendment came in response to a letter Amtrak sent earlier this year to public officials along the Chief’s route saying Amtrak would not match the grant obtained by Colfax County until a comprehensive funding plan is in place to rebuild the route between western Kansas and northern New Mexico.

Amtrak has earlier said it would provide $3 million if Colfax County landed the $16 million TIGER grant.

“The Southwest Chief is an engine of economic growth in New Mexico that connects rural communities from Raton to Gallup,” Udall said in a statement.

“I was pleased when the Southwest Chief received its latest TIGER grant — federal funding that been a big help in making badly-needed improvements to ensure a strong and stable future for the Southwest Chief in New Mexico.

“But Amtrak is threatening to pull out the rug from the New Mexico communities that are undertaking these critical repairs. That’s why I fought to ensure New Mexico has access to the funding we need and continue to have a say as we work to keep the Southwest Chief chugging long into the future.”

Amtrak Moves Trigger Anxiety on SW Chief Route

May 22, 2018

Some recent actions by Amtrak have triggered anxiety along the route of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Some fear that Amtrak is seeking to discontinue the Chicago-Los Angeles train.

The Pueblo Chieftan published a recent story that raised the prospect that a hoped-for section or reroute of the Chief to serve Pueblo will fall by the wayside due to changes in Amtrak policy.

La Junta, Colorado, city manager Rick Klein said Amtrak’s plans to close ticket offices along the train’s route has alarmed him.

La Junta is one of those stations losing its ticket agent along with Garden City and Topeka, Kansas, and Fort Madison, Iowa.

“We’ve been working to save the [Southwest Chief] for seven years, and now Amtrak is going in a different direction,” he said. “The Southwest Chief is vital across this region and northern New Mexico.”

Further causing anxiety was a letter sent to public officials along the route of the Chief stating Amtrak will not provide matching funds for a federal grant obtained by Colfax County, New Mexico, until a comprehensive plan is in place to fund the completion of the rebuilding of the train’s route.

Amtrak had earlier said it would provide $3 million for the track rehabilitation in northern New Mexico.

The letter renouncing the funds said the Southwest Chief only carried 364,000 passengers and ridership is declining.

Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace has led the efforts to extend the Chief to Pueblo and has been involved in the efforts to gain federal, state and local grant money to rebuild the route of Nos. 3 and 4 in western Kansas, southeast Colorado and northern New Mexico.

The chairman of the Southwest Chief and Front Range Rail Commission believes that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson is hostile toward the Chief.

“It’s my understanding this change in direction is coming from Anderson,” Pace said. “Communities in Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico have secured $71 million in rail upgrades over the past four years along the route of the Chief, and now Amtrak is threatening to withhold its contribution. It’s one individual stepping in to unravel all this work.”

Amtrak declined to comment to the newspaper about the issue.

Former Amtrak President Joesph Boardman has asserted that Amtrak is seeking to torpedo the Chief and long-distance trains generally in favor of short-haul corridors, including the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington.

Writing in the trade publication Railway Age, Boardman contended that the battle for the future of long-distance passenger train is occurring in private and that the Southwest Chief will be the first western train to be targeted.

Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico lawmakers have been supporting the cooperative effort to protect and repair the Southwest Chief’s route across their states.

During a recent committee hearing, Colorado Senator Cory Gardner pressed Joseph Gruters, a nominee of President Donald Trump to the Amtrak board of directors, on Amtrak’s commitment to the matching grant toward rebuilding the Chief’s route.

“That grant was awarded and the announcement was made,” Gardner said during the hearing. “Colorado, Kansas and New Medico have made significant commitments to this. Do you believe in keeping that commitment?”

“If (Amtrak) made the commitment, they should do that,” Gruters said in response.

Rallies Held for SW Chief

May 14, 2018

Rail passenger advocates held rallies last Saturday in Colorado in support of the Southwest Chief.

The rallies were designed to be spontaneous and were loosely organized by Rick Kleine of La Junta, Colorado, and Jim Souby of ColoRail.

Individuals were encouraged to take pictures of people with signs and post to Twitter, using the hashtag #SaveTheSWChief.

Rail passenger advocates fear that Amtrak is plotting to discontinue the Chief by refusing to award its match of federal funds secured by a New Mexico County that are to be used to rebuild the train’s route in that state.

An Amtrak government affairs official recently wrote to public officials along the route to say Amtrak would not match the funds as it previously agreed to do until there was a comprehensive funding plan in place to finish the route rebuilding.

Former Amtrak President Joseph Boardman warned last week that Amtrak appears to be making moves to discontinue the Chief, which operates between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Another Battle for the SW Chief Underway

May 9, 2018

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.

$16M Grant Released for S.W. Chief Route Track Work

March 7, 2018

The federal government has released a $16 million grant that will pay for track work on the route of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

“This should finish off the rail repair between La Junta (Colorado) and Newton (Kansas) as well as the work in Raton Pass,” said Pueblo [Colorado] County Commissioner Sal Pace, who is chairman of the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission.

The grant supplements more than $9 million pledged from communities served by the train in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

The project arose after track owner BNSF said it would decrease its maintenance of the line because it handles little freight traffic.

Pace said the multi-state coalition had earlier obtained grants of $21 million and $27 million.

“With this grant, we’re about 75 percent of the way toward the goal of needing $100 million in rail and route repairs,” he said.

The Southwest Chief runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles.

In a related development, the Pueblo County Board of County Commissioners approved a resolution pledging $12,500 to match support from the latest grant to rebuild the route of the Chief.

The federal money is coming from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program.

Colfax County, New Mexico, submitted the $25 million grant application and 23 communities in three states have passed similar resolutions, totaling about $9.2 million

The Front Range Rail commission is seeking to get route the Chief through Pueblo or get a connecting train that would operate to La Junta.