Posts Tagged ‘Southwest Chief’

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.

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Amtrak Matching Funds for Rebuild of S.W. Chief Route Coming With Terms and Conditions

April 5, 2018

Amtrak has agreed to contribute matching funds toward the project to upgrade the route of the Southwest Chief, but at a price it has never demanded before.

The passenger carrier will only agree to help fund the track rebuilding if the states promoting the project as well as BNSF submit a comprehensive plan for the remainder of the infrastructure investments and associated costs to rebuild the route in New Mexico.

Amtrak has also demanded that “prior to the obligation of grant funds for this project, the County of Colfax, N.M., BNSF, and Amtrak will enter into appropriate agreements setting forth our roles and responsibilities with respect to the project, with terms acceptable to Amtrak.”

Colfax County is the lead government entity that is seeking a federal TIGER grant to help fund rebuilding of the route of the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

More than two years ago BNSF said it would no longer maintain the route of the Chief in portions of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico to 79 mph speeds because freight traffic on the route is light.

Former Amtrak President Joe Boardman said in an interview with Trains magazine that Amtrak’s current approach to matching the funds being put up by government entities to rebuild the route of the Southwest Chief differs from the company’s behavior when he was its head.

Amtrak’s demands for terms that it alone must approve was submitted with the Colfax County TIGER grant application.

Amtrak Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer William N. Feidt said the passenger carrier “strongly supports” the application as a continuation of improvements and that Amtrak will offer $3 million if the grant application is successful.

Two government entities have been awarded TIGER grants in recent years to pay to upgrade the route of the Chief in Kansas and Colorado.

Those grants to the city of Garden City, Kansas, and La Junta, Colorado, were matched by funds from BNSF, the states involved, Amtrak and other cities with an interest in seeing the Southwest Chief remain on its current route.

Amtrak is the primary user of the route between Hutchinson, Kansas, and a junction west of Lamy, New Mexico.

In his interview with Trains, Boardman said he and former BNSF Chairman Matt Rose agreed that completion of the track work would not hinge on knowing where all the money would eventually come from.

“It was logical that we would do this in pieces,” Boardman said. “Yes, we couldn’t complete everything with the piece of money [from the first grant], but we couldn’t spend that money on construction right away anyway. We had strong commitments from all of the cities along the way. For me, that was enough to just keep going [with subsequent grants] and now the communities have an expectation that the project will continue.”

Colfax County is seeking more than $17.5 million for the track work. Entities other than the federal government are projected to contribute $9.19 million toward the project, including $3 million from BNSF and $1 million apiece from the states of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico as well as pledges from 17 communities in the three states

The American Association of Private Railcar Owners has pledged $10,000 while the Colorado Rail Passengers Association has agreed to contribute $1,000.

The most recent TIGER grant awarded to the project was $16 million, but that and other pledges funds leaves the $26.7 million project more than $1.5 million short.

It has not been determined if, as a result, officials will curtail the scope of the track rebuilding or seek larger matching contributions.

BNSF has reportedly “asked for a final Federal Railway Administration-approved budget in order to determine how much scope we need to reduce.”

The work to be done includes tie and rail replacement, rebuilding the roadbed at the Devils Throne fill area west of Lamy, and signal system improvements in New Mexico.

“One of the things I learned working on these kinds of things, is that if you fail to move when you have an opportunity to move, you’re probably going to fail to get this done,” Boardman told Trains.

Illinois Judge Orders Man Who Shot Amtrak Conductor Confined to Secure Residential Facility

January 15, 2018

A judge has ordered the man who shot an Amtrak conductor last year to be confined to a secure residential facility in Wisconsin.

DuPage County Judge Jeffrey MacKay prohibited Edward Klein from leaving the facility in suburban Milwaukee except in an emergency.

Prosecutors said during a court hearing that Klein’s family suggested the facility and a representative of the family said in court that the 80-year-old West Allis resident would be treated and cared for.

Klein had been charged with attempted murder last May after shooting Amtrak conductor Michael Case during a station stop in Naperville of the eastbound Southwest Chief.

Police have said Klein was angry that Case would not let him disembark in Naperville. Amtrak personnel were keeping Klein confined to the train because of his behavior and seeking to make sure that he reached Chicago Union Station and boarded a train for Milwaukee.

Klein has since been released from the DuPage County Jail and driven by police to the Wisconsin facility.

A court had earlier declared Klein unfit to stand trial after doctors determined that he was showing signs of dementia that is suspected to be Alzheimer’s disease.

Case, 46, said he supports how the court resolved the case. “We were ecstatic and we were relieved,” he said. “For us, our idea of justice was that he would get some help and not be able to go out among the general public.”

Case had undergone three surgeries in the wake of the shooting. He said last week in court that he has had some difficult days but bears no ill will toward Klein.

“It doesn’t do me any good,” Case said. “The No. 1 thing is I’m alive. And any day you’re alive is better than every day you’re 6 feet under.”

TIGER Grant Sought for SW Chief Route Upgrades

October 11, 2017

Officials in Colfax County in New Mexico are seeking a TIGER grant to upgrade the tracks used by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

If awarded, it would be the third federal grant used to improve the tracks, which are owned by BNSF.

Four state departments of transportation have pledged $1 million each while Amtrak and BNSF have each pledged $3 million in matching funds. Some local governments have also pledged matching funds.

The $25 million project will rebuild tracks within New Mexico. Previous TIGER grants of $25 million and $12 million were used for track work in Kansas and Colorado.

Colorado Commission Eyes Rail Expansion

September 5, 2017

A Colorado commission is studying a reroute of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief via Pueblo.

The study is part of a larger effort to restore rail passenger service along the Front Range of the Rockies between Fort Collins and Trinidad.

The commission faces a Dec. 1 deadline to submit its plan to the state legislature and is working with the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Intercity rail passengers between Denver and Front Range points south of the city ended on May 1, 1971, when a Santa Fe connecting train between Denver and La Juanta, Colorado, was discontinued.

Officials are eyeing a commuter rail service between Pueblo and Fort Collins, Colorado, which would cost an estimated $5 billion to $15 billion, said David Krutsinger, deputy director of CDOT’s transit and rail program.

Rerouting the Southwest Chief via Colorado would require rehabilitating 50 miles of track and it is not clear where the millions of dollars in funding for that would come from.

An estimated 14,000 passengers a year would use the Chief if it served Pueblo.

Operating Issues Plague Amtrak Trains

May 3, 2017

Amtrak long distance trains serving the Midwest have been hit with a long list of woes that have caused service disruptions, detours and cancellations.

The Texas Eagle was forced to detour in southern Missouri after a washout on its route via the Union Pacific’s Iron Mountain Subdivision prompted a detour on the former Cotton Belt route between St. Louis and Polar Bluff, Missouri.

Consequently Nos. 21 and 22 missed the scheduled stop at Arcadia Valley, Missouri, and ran late, arriving in Chicago 11 hours late on Sunday.

The Southwest Chief was delayed by a spring snowstorm between Dodge City, Kansas, and Lamar, Colorado, on Sunday that led to No. 3 being more than 15 hours late arriving in Los Angeles.

BNSF personnel provided grade crossing protecting during whiteout conditions.

A head-on collision of two Canadian National trains at Money, Mississippi, on Sunday caused the City of New Orleans to be terminated en route.

Passengers were taken from bus from Memphis to New Orleans on Sunday and Monday.

Northbound passengers rode a bus from Jackson, Mississippi, to Memphis on both days.

A BNSF derailment on Monday led to the Empire Builder being detoured in both directions. Nos. 7 and 8 were expected to detour on Tuesday over a Union Pacific route between Spokane, Washington, and Sandpoint, Idaho.

Lawrence Expects to Take Ownership of Station

May 2, 2017

The Lawrence, Kansas, city commission will review today an agreement with BNSF that would give the city ownership and control of the Amtrak station later this year.

City officials said BNSF has decided to give up its stake in the former Santa Fe depot and property on which it sits.

The commission had earlier approved a pace with the railroad regarding station ownership.

“It’s very good for us, because we will have significant investment in the building itself and also in the site,” said Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard. “And for us to be able to control it at the local level long term will be to our advantage.”

The station, which is served by the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief, was built in the 1950s and has received minimal maintenance in recent years.

Lawrence will use a $1.2 million state transportation grant to renovate the building. The city’s contribution is expected to be $160,000.

Under the agreement being considered by the city, BNSF will donate the depot and land to the city. An earlier agreement by which BNSF would lease back or repurchase the station has been dropped.

BNSF officials said that they dropped their demands for a lease back or repurchase clause in order to simply the negotiations.

However, Stoddard said those changes in BNSF’s stance came from the CEO-level of the railroad.

“Donating the land with the building allowed us to streamline the transfer process,” said BNSF Public Affairs Director Andy Williams, adding that the railroad doesn’t anticipate needing the station in the future.

Stoddard also said the elimination of the lease-back provision means the station will be able to be used for various uses during daytime hours when Amtrak is not using it.

“With that no longer in play, it does provide a host of options for the city to consider with regard to the use of the building into the future,” Stoddard said. “Those things will need to be determined over time.”

Fort Madison Station Upgrades Put on Hold

April 19, 2017

Officials in Fort Madison, Iowa, say that plans for Amtrak to use a different station are on hold.

“We can’t spend tax money on this or the funds we have unless we have a good assurance that it’s going to [go] forward and stay in,” said City Manager David Varley.

He was referring to the lack of a state budget in Iowa and federal budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration that would end all funding for Amtrak long-distance trains.

Fort Madison will pony up 25 percent of the $1.2 million needed to upgrade the Santa Fe Depot for Amtrak’s use.

“We are going to do what we can on our part but at the same time we have to be responsible,” Varley said.

Fort Madison is the only stop in Iowa for Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

SW Chief to Benefit from BNSF Track Work in Kansas

January 26, 2017

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief will benefit from planned capital expenditures planned for its route in Kansas in 2017

Amtrak Southwest Chief 2BNSF said it will spend $125 million in the Sunflower State, most of it on rails used by the Chicago-Los Angeles train.

BNSF spokesman Andy Williams said the work will include replacing ties, laying new rail and adding ballast.

The work will be undertaken between Emporia and Topeka, and between Newton and Garden City.

Earlier track work done in western Kansas was instrumental in helping to keep the Chief on its present route. That work was funded largely with federal TIGER grants.

City Manager Says New Amtrak Station Platform in Fort Madison May be Completed This Year

January 18, 2017

Amtrak is waiting on Federal Railroad Administration approval of a new platform reconstruction project in Fort Madison, Iowa.

Amtrak 4City officials said that although the project was projected to go out for bids in April, that is now more likely to occur in May or June. Construction is expected to take six to eight months.

The project will move the Amtrak stop for the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief to the former Santa Fe passenger station, which has recently been rehabilitated.

Fort Madison City manager David Varley said once the FRA signs off on the project the platform plans will be reviewed by BNSF, which owns the station site.

“The final construction plans have been submitted,” Varley said.

Once BNSF reviews the platform plans, they will be passed on to the Iowa Department of Transportation for its review. “IDOT will be the group that will be bidding out the project,” Varley said.

Also, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must issue a 404 permit because the Amtrak platform will be located in a flood plain.

“We are working on getting that permit, which is required,” Varley said. “We are trying to tie up some of the final paperwork and review of the final plans approved, and once that all gets together, we will get a definitive date as to when it will go on a schedule as to when it will go to be bid out.”

And then the Fort Madison City Council will need to approve the plans.

“We need to clarify what the duties and responsibilities of both parties are,” Varley said. “These have to be approved by both parties before the project goes out to bid and before construction starts.”

Despite having a lot of hoops to jump through, Varley does not expect any problems to crop up that will keep the platform from being built.