Posts Tagged ‘Saving the Southwest Chief’

Colorado Official Wins Amtrak Award for His Work to Preserve Existing Route of Southwest Chief

September 14, 2016

A Colorado public official has received recognition from Amtrak for his efforts to save the Southwest Chief.

Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace will receive the 2016 President’s Service and Safety Award in the Amtrak Champion category.

Amtrak Southwest Chief 2Former Amtrak President and CEO Joseph H. Boardman wrote to Pace last month about his winning the award for his work to keep the Chicago-Los Angeles train on its existing route through southeast Colorado.

Boardman said Pace’s support was helpful in the project to save the Chief receiving a Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery grant that was used to rebuild the decaying BNSF tracks used by the train.

“It was a pleasant surprise to be recognized,” Pace said. “It’s the highest recognition for the support of passenger trains in the U.S. Obviously I didn’t earn it myself. There’s other folks in Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico who have been working hard on the Southwest Chief.

“It’s evident that when a dedicated group works together it can get anything accomplished.”

Although Pace was scheduled to receive his award on Sept. 23 in Washington, he will instead be speaking on that day at the behest of Amtrak at a conference in Cincinnati.

That conference will address route issues facing Amtrak’s Chicago-New York Cardinal. “They are facing similar issues that the Chief was facing a few years ago,” Pace said.

“I will speak about our coalition and the work we’ve done here in Colorado. Also protecting the Chief and what we have done to enhance it with a stop in Pueblo.”

Pace said he continues to work to have the Chief rerouted via Pueblo.

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Boardman Tours Rebuilt S.W. Chief Route

August 11, 2016

As part of what has been billed as a farewell excursion, Amtrak President Joe Boardman recently toured the route of the Southwest Chief and recognized local officials for landing federal money that was used to rebuild the tracks used by the train in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

BNSF owns the former Santa Fe tracks used by the Chicago-Los Angeles train but has little freight traffic on it.

Amtrak logoBack in 2012, BNSF said that it would no longer maintain the route to support passenger train speeds, which raised questions about the future of the Southwest Chief.

The cities of Garden City, Kansas, and La Junta, Colorado, in response sought and won federal TIGER grant funding totaling $27.6 million that was used to begin a track rehabilitation project.

“Since my service as Amtrak CEO began in 2008, Amtrak and BNSF have worked together to match federal grants with investments from both of our railroads, states and towns,” Boardman said.

The first of those grants was $12.4 million awarded to Garden City. It was combined with $9.3 million of private, local and state funding to renovate nearly 47 of the 158 miles of bolted rail sections between Pierceville, Kansas, and Las Animas, Colorado, to Federal Railroad Administration Class 4 condition.

That work enabled Amtrak Nos. 3 and 4 to operate at up to 79 mph. The project involved installing continuous welded rail and creating new grade crossings and turnouts.

A year later La Junta received a grant of $15.2 million that was used to rebuild the track on the La Junta Subdivision in Colorado and on 20 miles of the Albuquerque Subdivision. That project involved 39 miles of new continuously welded rail and ballast.

BNSF Executive Chairman Matt Rose, Interim Kansas Transportation Secretary Richard Carlson and mayors and state transportation officials rode with Boardman over portions of the route of the Southwest Chief.

The project also received $8 million from Amtrak and $4 million from BNSF.

Boardman also lauded the leadership and problem-solving strategies used to save the Southwest Chief.

Officials said more grant funding will be needed for future track rehabilitation on Raton Pass on other sections of track near Lamy, New Mexico.

Boardman Says S.W. Chief to Stay

August 5, 2016

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said this week that the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief will continue to operate on its present route for the foreseeable future.

Amtrak Southwest Chief 2Boardman, who will step down as Amtrak president in late September, traveled the route of the Chief this week.

He noted that the train had been saved with the help of public funding, including $27.6 million in federal TIGER grant funding after BNSF threatened to lower the speed limit on the route as it downgraded its maintenance program due to low freight traffic.

Until a track rebuilding project began, the condition of the route had been deteriorating.

Some funding was provided by Amtrak ($8 million) and BNSF ($4 million). The funding paid for new rail and ties.

Another TIGER Grant Sought to Continue Rebuilding of BNSF Tracks Used by S.W. Chief

May 6, 2016

Lamar, Colorado, is seeking a $30 million TIGER grant to be used to fund track renovation of the route of Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

This money would be used to lay 60 miles of new track and complete a rebuilding of the BNSF La Junta Subdivision in Kansas and Colorado.

Amtrak Southwest Chief 2Some of the money would also be used to rebuild tracks owned by the state of New Mexico in Santa Fe County.

The work would involve replacement of bolted rail with continuous welded rail that will enable the Chief to travel at a top speed of 79 mph.

Aging semaphore and searchlight block signals would be replaced with modern signals and the signal pole line would be removed along 22.5 miles of track owned by New Mexico on the BNSF Albuquerque Subdivision.

Switches will also be upgraded, which officials said will better facilitate meets between Amtrak Nos. 3 and 4.

The work is expected also to result in a better ride quality.

The grant would be combined with $10 million of non-federal matching funds for a total project cost of $41 million.

In a related development, Pueblo County, Colorado, has joined 23 communities pledging grant-matching funds in support of the city of Lamar’s TIGER grant application.

The Pueblo County commissioners this week approved a local match of $12,500, making it the third that the county has pledged to the campaign to keep the Southwest Chief on its present route through the southeast corner of Colorado.

“This would make a total of over 300 miles of rail replacement between TIGER grants,” said Commissioner Sal Pace.

The transportation departments of Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico have all agreed to provide $1 million in matching funds to support the TIGER grant application. Another $3 million has been pledged by Amtrak and BNSF.

The Chief stops in Colorado in Trinida, La Junta and Lamar, but Pace and others want to see the train serve Pueblo.

Pace, who chairs the Southwest Chief Commission, said the next TIGER grant after the Lamar application, will be submitted by Pueblo County and focus on a reroute of the train to serve Pueblo.

He estimated that $35 million is needed to complete the necessary track improvements in the region and the commission intends to apply for the TIGER IX grant to fund those improvements.

Pace said he plans to meet with Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers to discuss a potential extension of rail passenger service to that city.

Pueblo Renews Push to Become SW Chief Stop

November 11, 2015

Officials in Pueblo, Colorado, have renewed their push to reroute Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to serve their community.

The effort comes in the wake of successful efforts to assure the future of the train’s current route through western Kansas, southeastern Colorado and northern New Mexico through the use of federal TIGER grants.

The grant money is being used to rebuild the BNSF tracks used by the Chicago-Los Angeles train.

“If Colorado is going to help save this line, we need to have a stop in Pueblo,” said Sal Pace, a Pueblo County commissioner who has been active in the fight to keep the Southwest Chief on its present route.

Pace is chairman of the Southwest Chief Commission and is promoting the use of Pueblo Union Station. Pueblo has not had intercity rail service since the coming of Amtrak on May 1, 1971.

“The funding mechanism is there,” Pace said about the prospect of a Pueblo stop for the Chief. “The devil is in the details.”

A Colorado State University study estimated that adding Pueblo to the route of the Southwest Chief would attract 15,500 passengers annually and have an economic impact of a $3.4 million.

Pace and others have discussed extending operation of the Denver ski train south along the Interstate 25 corridor.

The ski train currently operates between Denver and Winter Park, Colorado, which is the same route used by Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

Colorado passenger rail advocates see extended operation of the ski train as a way to introduce rail passenger travel to Coloradoans living in areas not served by Amtrak or commuter rail service in the Denver metropolitan area.

“The Ski Train is more than just Winter Park for us,” said Jim Souby, president of the Colorado Rail Passenger Association and a member of the Southwest Chief Commission. “It’s showing people how great it is to ride the train.”

A Colorado Department of Transportation study of a proposed Front Range rail system that would extend between Fort Collins and Pueblo put development costs at between $500 million and $1 billion.

Amtrak has been noncommittal about revising the route of the Southwest Chief to include Pueblo and Walsenburg, Colorado. At present, the only stations served by the Chief in Colorado are Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad.

“We think it’s something worth considering,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. “It’s just a question of cost.”

An Amtrak conductor who works aboard the Southwest Chief sees benefits to having the train serve Pueblo.

“Pueblo would be a big stop,” Marcelino Martinez told the Denver Post. “It would probably rival Kansas City and Albuquerque.”

Martinez said some Chief passengers drive from Colorado Springs to board the train. “We get a lot of people driving down (to La Junta) so they can get to Los Angeles,” he said.

Pueblo is home to the Evraz steel mill, which employs 1,200, and is the nation’s leading producer of rail, some of which is going to be used in rebuilding the route of the Southwest Chief.

The federal government also operates a test track for railroad technology to the east of Pueblo.

TIGER Grant to Fund Additional Track Upgrades on BNSF Route Used by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief

October 27, 2015

More federal grant money will flow toward rebuilding the route of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is awarding a $15 million TIGER grant to the city of La Junta, Colorado, that will be used to fund track work on the BNSF La Junta Subdivision in Colorado and the Albuquerque Subdivision in New Mexico.

An earlier TIGER grant is being used to upgrade tracks used by the Chicago-Los Angeles train through Kansas.

Cities served by the train in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico have raised more than $9 million to match the TIGER grant. Collectively, $24.4 million has been raised for the track project.

The track work will include installation of 39 miles of new welded rail in Colorado and more than 20 miles of new ties and ballast in New Mexico.

The Chief is the only train using the route between La Junta and Madrid, New Mexico. At the latter point, the track into Albuquerque is owned by the State of New Mexico.

Money in Hand for SW Chief Route Track Work

September 3, 2015

Garden City, Kansas, now has funding in hand to devote to rebuilding BNSF tracks used by Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angles Southwest Chief in Kansas and Colorado.

The city received a $12.5 million TIGER grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Matching funds pledged by such partners as the Kansas Department of Transportation, BNSF, local governments in southwest Kansas and southeast Colorado, and the Southwest Chief Coalition will bring the among of money for track work up to $21.8 million

BNSF is expected to replace 50 miles of jointed rail with continuous welded rail

The railroad said that without outside assistance it would have downgraded the line to freight train speeds after its contract with Amtrak expires in early 2016.

There is 158 miles of bolted track between Hutchinson, Kansas, and Animas Jct., Colorado, where the BNSF line from Denver turns south toward Amarillo, Texas.

La Junta, Colorado, is leading the campaign to land another TIGER grant that would include cover local governments in New Mexico.

The Southwest Chief is the only train using the former Santa Fe line from La Junta to state of New Mexico-owned track at Madrid, north of Albuquerque.

Bid to Fund S.W. Chief Falls Short in Colorado

April 20, 2015

Supporters of keeping Amtrak’s Southwest Chief on its current route through Colorado fell one vote short last week when the Colorado legislature’s Joint Budget Committee turned down funding improvement to the train’s route.

“General fund support for the Chief came down to one legislator. We couldn’t secure Senator Kevin Grantham’s vote,” said Sal Pace of Pueblo, Colo., who chairs the Southwest Chief Commission.

“I can’t speculate to his rationale, but it underscores how desperately we need someone from Pueblo on the Joint Budget Committee. There are other avenues for funding, which we are aggressively pursuing beginning today,” Pace said.

Earlier, Chief supporters did manage a victory in the Colorado House when two amendments were added to the House version of the state budget bill that set aside $1 million as a match from other sources to obtain a federal grant to upgrade and repair trackage through Trinidad, La Junta, and Lamar.

A $500,000 appropriation would have funded a study of linking the route to Pueblo.

Neither of those measures survived the committee, leaving the delegation from Pueblo and Southern Colorado weighing its options for funding track work that Amtrak and BNSF say is needed to keep the Chicago-Los Angeles train running on its current route past January 2016.

Southwest Chief Still Not Out of Danger

April 6, 2015

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.

Southwest Chief to Remain on Present Route

March 30, 2015

The Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief will stay on its present route, Amtrak has revealed.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari was quoted by the Santa Fe New Mexican as saying that the deadline to commit funding to a track maintenance pact for the route has been removed.

Amtrak had said that the Chief would have to move off its present route through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico if funding for rebuilding the BNSF track on the line was not reached by Jan. 1, 2016.

“We are making progress. There is no imminent cutoff date. … We do not want to move this train to another route,” Magliari said.

The Chief uses a former Santa Fe route via the southeast corner of Colorado that BNSF makes little use of for freight traffic. Most BNSF freight traffic uses the Transcon route via Amarillo, Texas.

The states of Colorado and Kansas last year sought a federal grant and set aside for track repairs on their sections of the route.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who has described funding long-distance trains as a federal government responsibility, authorized $150,000 last year for a study of the Southwest Chief’s costs and benefits.

Even without New Mexico’s commitment of financial support thus far, Amtrak believes all three states have a sound plan in place for upkeep of the tracks.

Magliari and New Mexico State Rep. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos, said the plan contains no timetable because all the states now have a strategy to cover costs on their part of the route.

Tom Church, cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Transportation, says his agency is devising ways to pay for repairs in New Mexico. “We are coordinating an effort with the Southwest Chief Coalition for the Northern New Mexico cities and counties to develop a TIGER grant through the federal Transportation Department,” Church’s office said.

Garden City, Kan., was the lead applicant for a group of local governments that received a TIGER grant last year to help pay for track repairs on sections of track used by the train.

Twelve communities in Colorado, four in Kansas, Amtrak, BNSF and the Kansas Department of Transportation have pledged more than $9 million to secure the $12.5 million federal grant, said Sal Pace, chairman of the Southwest Chief Commission in Colorado.

Although New Mexico lawmakers recently adjourned without allocating money for track repairs, State Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the State Senate’s Finance Committee, said that the $6.23 billion state budget contains money for local economic development projects.

Smith said $37.5 million designated for economic development programs could give Martinez’s administration the money needed to begin maintenance or help obtain a TIGER grant in collaboration with Kansas and Colorado. BNSF is expected soon to provide updated information on track maintenance costs in New Mexico.

The next application for a TIGER grant for the Southwest Chief project will include Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico, Pace said.

“Time is of the essence because we’re told the grant might not be around next year,” he said.