By Noel T. Braymer
The prospects for the future of the Southwest Chief don’t look good. The BNSF has made it clear that they will not spend more money on the route between Albuquerque, New Mexico and Newton, Kansas to maintain the tracks to passengers standards with so little freight traffic on them. BNSF wants Amtrak or someone else to pay for track maintenance on this route. Amtrak has assumed it could reroute the Chief on the BNSF Mainline through Amarillo, Texas if the current route is no longer available. The BNSF has warned Amtrak that any reroute of the Chief through Amarillo would cost about as much money as repairing the existing tracks through New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. Amtrak in this case is considering dropping the Chief entirely.
Clearly the solution is finding more money. But the States, Amtrak and Congress all claim they don’t have it. In order to keep the Chief running more has to be done to expand its markets to more places and bring in more revenue. Also everyone involved, the “Stakeholders” will have to spend some money to keep the Chief running.
One idea that would expand the market for the Chief is a minor reroute to serve Pueblo, Colorado. This will add a little time to the schedule but open a new market in an area with mostly low population density. In addition serving Pueblo can improve bus connections to Colorado Springs, the Denver area and even as far as Cheyenne.
A project that has long been talked about and studied is extending the Heartland Flyer past Oklahoma City to Kansas City. This has been mostly looked at as a stand alone project to expand the Flyer’s service to Kansas City. Doing this is very expensive. What could be done for less money and greater revenue is combine the Chief with the Flyer to increase ridership and connections to both trains. This would mean connections at Newton, Kansas in the wee hours of the night. This can be mitigated with connecting cars between between trains although this will increase costs. Combine this with existing connections at Kansas City for service to St. Louis and Chicago for both trains and you can have more ridership for both trains and more “Stakeholders” with an interest to keep the Chief.
One thing that Amtrak can do to improve the health of the Chief is find and add more passenger cars to this train. This train like most American long distance trains is often sold out and could handle more business if it had more capacity. More passengers means more revenue and more supporters of improved rail passenger service.
More can be done to market the Chief with connections it already has. Few people realize that on the Chief you can make connections to St. Louis or much of Missouri between St. Louis and Kansas City. Between St Louis and Chicago there are many cities in Illinois the Chief also has connections . If you stay on the Chief at Kansas City to Chicago you can connect there to trains to the East Coast like the Capitol Limited through Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Washington. It is possible to create through cars between the Capitol Limited and the Chief since they both use Superliner equipment. There are also connections on the Lake Shore Limited to Albany with sections to Boston or New York City.
In Los Angeles passengers to and from the Chief can make connections towards San Diego or the Bay Area via the San Joaquin Valley. Passenger arriving on the Chief in Los Angeles in the morning can catch the Starlight going north which connects to the Empire Builder. But now passengers coming south on the Starlight have to spend the night and the next day in Los Angeles to catch Chief the next evening. This is crazy.
If the Southwest Chief is radically changed and loses more connections, this will reduce the market not just for the Chief but for the trains that lose connections to it. If the Southwest Chief is allowed to die, this will impact ridership and revenue along the entire Amtrak rail system including the Northeast Corridor. The Chief is the rail connection between Chicago and Los Angeles, 2 of the 3 largest cities in America. But these cities are also hubs to many more markets for the Chief and other trains. This network of connections of Amtrak Trains is what makes Amtrak a National Railroad Passenger Corporation.
This network of passenger trains held together by the Long Distance Trains has been greatly weakened over the years by eliminating routes. These cuts didn’t save money but reduced revenues more than reducing costs. At some point if more parts of the National Rail Passenger Network are cut the whole network will implode.