A sign pressed against the closed doors of the Garden City Amtrak depot servicing passengers of the Southwest Chief advises visitors to print their e-ticket ahead of time instead of getting a copy at the ticket counter.

The ticket services at the Garden City Amtrak depot will officially be shutting down on Tuesday as part of a series of corporate cuts that some rail advocates see as a bad sign for long-distance services in rural America.

Garden City and Topeka are both losing their Amtrak ticket agents this month as the company raises efficiencies by cutting costs and emphasizing online services. The layoff of both ticket agents in Kansas represents two of 22 recent nationwide layoffs by Amtrak.

Marc Magliari, Amtrak’s regional spokesman, says the move isn’t intended to reflect disinvestment in rural rail services in states such as Kansas. He said dual layoffs are also occurring in Texas and Montana amid declining onsite ticket sales.

“In all these cases, it’s because more than nine out of 10 tickets are not sold anymore at ticket counters,” Magliari said, adding that customers are mostly buying tickets at home, at work or with their mobile devices. Because Amtrak is partially funded by taxpayer dollars, efficiency is important, he said.

Taxpayer money also factors strongly into the definition of long-distance rail. Magliari noted that in 2008, Congress determined that rail routes shorter than 750 miles are to be funded in partnership with state and regional governments but not federally. For longer routes, federal money plays a big role.

The Southwest Chief, which traces from Chicago to Los Angeles, is Amtrak’s only long-distance train in the state, and its route includes six Kansas stops in Dodge City, Garden City, Hutchinson, Lawrence, Newton and Topeka.

In Garden City, passengers boarded and disembarked from the Southwest Chief 6,966 times in 2017, more than any other stop in western Kansas, including Hutchinson. But of that travel activity, none of the tickets were purchased at the depot’s ticket counter.

In all, 52,214 passengers rode the Southwest Chief in 2017, a 5.7 percent increase from 2016.

Garden City Manager Matt Allen says the depot, owned by the City of Garden City, will remain open in support of Amtrak’s services, and for most passengers there will be “very little to no difference.”

In the absence of a full-time staffer, a caretaker will be contracted, possibly by the city, to keep the facility open, maintain access to the restroom and assist people getting on and off the train. Even without a ticket agent, Allen expects there will be no reduction in service.

But Evan Stair, president of rail advocacy groups Passenger Rail Kansas and Passenger Rail Oklahoma, sees the series of cuts and layoffs as a sign of more things to come.

Rail Passengers Association, a national rail advocacy group, recently launched the Amtrak Mayors Petition project in the wake of Amtrak discount removals and the retirement and alteration of passenger services. The petition encourages riders to contact their local mayoral office to voice dissatisfaction with the wave of sudden changes.

The goal is to require Amtrak to report to Congress and the communities it serves, detailing its monetary investments to ensure continued service to all towns currently on the national rail system.

Amtrak leadership has shown a growing preference for rail services confined to densely populated corridors of the country as part of its growing commitment to efficiency because the vast majority of its operating losses are incurred through long-distance rail, and the petition calls for continued preservation of National Network Service without eliminating opportunities for rural and small-town passengers.

Though the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program has been retired under the Trump administration, a successful TIGER grant application issued last year by Colfax County, N.M., was supported by Amtrak with a $3 million match for project costs, but with more conditions than were previously issued, according to former Amtrak president Joe Boardman, whose confirmation was reported by Trains Magazine.

The section of rail that would be covered by the grant is part of the Southwest Chief’s route. In a letter penned by Amtrak Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer William N. Feidt, the company called for a comprehensive financial plan outlining the remainder of infrastructure and associated maintenance costs.

The terms must be deemed acceptable to Amtrak, meaning the company could withhold its $3 million pledge.

In an email, Stair said he is “very concerned” by the contingency changes, adding that Amtrak’s new leadership could cut future service through southwest Kansas under the going trend as the company builds efficiencies.

“New Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has his ax out and could very well in the near future seek to modify or cut Southwest Chief service,” Stair said.

He noted that Anderson is the former CEO of Delta Airlines and has not yet held his position at Amtrak for a full year.

“In my 17 years of advocacy, I have not seen a crisis looming on the horizon like I do now,” Stair said. “Anderson either does not understand how Amtrak works best or he is on a mission to shut it down one piece at a time.”

In 2015, Garden City and La Junta, Colo., initiated an interstate coalition called the Southwest Chief Rural Rail Partnership (SCRRP) to rehabilitate the poor track conditions along the Southwest Chief’s route in Kansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico after BNSF was forced to downgrade speeds along the route to much less than the 79 mph rate Amtrak prefers.

The downgrade incurred additional costs and reduced efficiencies for Amtrak — the opposite of what the company is trying to do — and between the matched funds secured by SCRRP and other partnering agencies, more than $46 million has been spent to rehabilitate the railway and upwards of $25 million in added funds have been pledged to the rehabilitation process in New Mexico through the latest Colfax County TIGER grant.

But a $1.5 million shortfall in federal matches means the scope of the project will either be reduced, or larger matching contributions will be required, Trains Magazine reported.

According to Allen, Garden City matched the other localities in the SCRRP by pledging $12,500 for each of the three TIGER grant applications since 2015.

The local and corporate support for the grant applications has been instrumental in winning federal matches over other applicants competing for government money.

Despite Stair’s concerns, Magliari emphasized that Amtrak has been a partner in matching funds to keep the Southwest Chief’s route open. He says the section of railway that remains to be rehabilitated passes over the Raton Pass in New Mexico, the highest railway pass in the western United States.

Still, Magliari conceded that Amtrak’s growth trajectory has focused on state-sponsored corridor routes confined to more densely populated areas, and Amtrak is in talks with Kansas officials to potentially extend the corridor that currently traces from Fort Worth, Texas, to Oklahoma City and on to Wichita.

In regards to the concerns expressed by the RPA and its affiliates, Magliari said that “at this time we don’t have any announcement” that a discontinuance of the Southwest Chief Amtrak route is underway.

Allen said Garden City and its partners have ongoing concerns about the Southwest Chief route and continuously work to improve performance of long-distance passenger rail in rural areas by advocating for the model at the congressional level.

“Much like Essential Air Service, it makes sense for the (federal) subsidy to connect the country, and while I can appreciate wanting to make Amtrak a more viable business model, pushing resources towards the area or areas of the country that should by virtue of their population be more commercially viable at the expense of rural America I think is bad public policy,” Allen said. “The government subsidy should be focused on connecting the country, not further disenfranchising it.”

Allen said long-distance passenger rail is “service to and through rural America,” which is why the City of Garden City and its partners have remained invested in the Southwest Chief through grant matches for railway improvements and rehabilitation.

When asked if he thinks the work to rehabilitate the Southwest Chief’s route is paying off, he said, “We still have passenger rail service (in Garden City), and there were a lot of people that didn’t think we would in 2018.”

 

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.