From Paul Dyson:
News is coming in thick and fast about the Southwest Chief and RailPAC is doing its best to keep you up to date.
As you probably know Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has stated that he believes that the National Network sleeper trains (we don’t like the term “long distance”) are not viable, and he wants to replace them with short and medium distance “corridors”. At the same time he is concerned about safety, rightly so, but has overreached himself by stating that all Amtrak trains should run on routes with Positive Train Control installed. (“PTC”). The Federal Railroad Administration, who should know a thing or two about this, has indicated that waivers are appropriate in cases where non passenger traffic is minimal or non-existant.
The segment of route between Dodge City, KS and Lamy, NM has no freight service at present and is in need of heavy maintenance, such as ties and rails. For many years the States, line owner BNSF, and Amtrak have pieced together a deal, using various grants and pools of funds, to keep the line open and the trains running. I believe that BNSF wants to keep access to the line, either as a diversionary route for emergencies, or for future business not yet identified publicly. Certainly the States and the communities served want to see the train continue.
Thus the scene is set for a meeting between Senators of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico regarding the future of the Southwest Chief:
From the Kansas 25th June 2018
Amtrak considering busses for part of Chief
Posted Jun 25, 2018 at 3:54 PMUpdated Jun 25, 2018 at 4:31 PM
There is a new threat to the Southwest Chief, a long distance Amtrak train from Chicago to Los Angeles with six stops in Kansas including Newton.
The Chief has turned back multiple threats in the past decade, but this one could be the most serious according to Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Kansas and Passenger Rail Oklahoma.
“Most of the threats to Amtrak services in the past have been based upon congressional budget cuts or cuts from the president,” Stair said. “This is the first time, really, that you have the CEO at Amtrak … who is making broad-based assumptions about service.”
A plan to suspend rail service, and insert the use of a bus service in its place, in the middle of the route was presented to members of congress last week. A copy of a powerpoint presentation created by Richard Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak, for that meeting with legislators from Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico was obtained by The Newton Kansan.
“During conversations with members of the Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico congressional delegations, Amtrak indicated that we are 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,” said Marc Magliari, public relations manager for Amtrak. “These options will consider the long-term operating and capital costs of continuing current service over the entire route and alternate bus and rail service combinations that would ensure continued transportation service and connections to the Amtrak rail network for all communities along the route.”
Towns that could lose train service initially include Garden City, Kansas; Lamar, Colorado; La Junta, Colorado; Trinidad, Colorado; Raton, New Mexico; Las Vegas, New Mexico; and Lamy, New Mexico.
According to Amtrak, those towns would be served by charter buses to connect the two stubs of the current Southwest Chief train.
It is not a plan that sits well with Stair.
“Every time you have what is called a cross-platform transfer, you lose 50 percent of your ridership,” Stair said. “That comes from an equipment provider. If there is a change in Dodge City or LaJunta, you cut your ridership in half. You change from a bus to a train again at Albuquerque and you take that half and half it again. You are talking about a dramatic drop in ridership.”
Over the past five years ridership on the Southwest Chief has risen — from 355,815 in 2013 to 363,269 in 2017. Ridership has declined the past two years after a peak in 2015.
Albuquerque is the largest station on the list of bus service, with more than 77,000 riders annually and the third largest stop on the Chief route, according Amtrak statistics. Newton is the 10th largest stop on the route, with 13,741 riders each year. Newton generates $1.4 million in ticket revenues for the route.
There are 33 stations served by the Southwest Chief.
“There are 992 city pairs, combinations for stops, on the Southwest Chief,” Stair said. “Seats and beds are resold multiple times on the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. … There are segments of the route where you can not get a ticket because this train is sold out.”
At the heart of the struggle to keep the train moving is needed repairs and updates to about a 670-mile stretch of track — specifically a 216-mile segment in Colorado and New Mexico where there are no longer any freight trains operated — making Amtrak the sole user of the stretch.
That also makes Amtrak responsible for all capital and maintenance costs on that stretch of track, which is owned by BNSF.
“The Southwest Chief is unique in that it is the only route where a significant section of infrastructure is owned by a host railroad – BNSF Railway – but solely used by Amtrak,” Magliari said. “Significant future costs are facing Amtrak to upgrade the BNSF track. 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.”
According to Amtrak documents, annual maintenance costs for the sole use segment of track in Colorado and New Mexico is estimated at $3 million. The railway estimated capital costs and improvements of at least $30 million over the next five years.
“When Amtrak sees a challenge, a fiscal challenge, they get out their axe,” Stair said. “They do not look beyond the cost-cutting model for improving their service. That is what we are seeing here. That is a culture that started in 1971. These long distance routes consist of multiple corridors. People ride from Kansas City to Albuquerque. … That is a good thing. The train is being used for multiple transportation purposes.”
According to the American Railroad Association, positive train control is an electronic system designed to automatically stop a train before certain types of accidents occur. In particular, PTC is designed to prevent train-to-train collisions; derailments caused by excessive train speed;and train movements through misaligned track switches.
There is not Positive Train Control from Dodge City to Las Animas, Colorado, a spot just short of La Junta, Colorado. PTC is also not available from LaJunta to Albuquerque.
The Chief faced a similar problem in 2015 when there was not PTC available in Kansas City. At that time, Amtrak was able to come to an agreement with rail owners in Kansas City to get PTC installed. It is the host railroad’s responsibility to install PTC.
“Amtrak is now weaponizing Positive Train Control,” Stair said. “They are using this as an excuse to take more federal dollars and move them to the northeast corridor — the Boston to Washington D.C. segment — and force the states to pay more for services that are historically federally funded.”
The Southwest Chief operates on two host railroads — the BNSF and the New Mexico Rail Runner, owned by the New Mexico Department of Transportation.
Over the past few years communities have been able to get federal grants to improve sections of the rail.
“Newton, as well as a lot of other communities on the route — these are small communities that depend on this service as their primary transportation to connect to other outside locations — all put money into this effort to preserve and improve the rail from Newton all the way to La Junta, and now we just abandon that,” said Barth Hague, a county commissioner who has worked on rail issues. “It feels like an afront to all those communities that have fought to preserve this service in good faith with Amtrak. Now they are willing to scuttle that?”
Over the course of the past five years TIGER grant funds have been poured into the Southwest Chief route for rail improvements. In 2014 the Kansas Department of Transportation pumped $3 million into a grant, matched by $2 million for the BNSF, $4 million from Amtrak, $300,000 from municipalities and $9.3 million from the federal government to improved tracks in western Kansas.
A year later, KDOT committed $1 million, Colorado $1 million, New Mexico $1 million, Amtrak $4 million the feds $9.2 million to make improvements in Colorado and new Mexico In 2017 Colfax County, New Mexico, put forward a grant application for improvements in New Mexico following an unsuccessful grant application in 2016. For the 2017 application, which would be a total of $25 million from all sources, to be completed a comprehensive plan is needed for maintenance. That plan has not, according to Amtrak, been received.
Evan Stair is an Oklahoma based advocate who has worked for many years to bring passenger rail ot Okalhoma and Kansas, including extension of the Heartland Flyer to Kansas, and service between Oklahome City and Tulsa, OK.