During a meeting last week between Amtrak’s CEO and a small Congressional delegation that included Kansas’ two Senators, it was revealed that the train operator is exploring ending passenger train service between Dodge City and Albuquerque, and implementing a bus connection on the route instead.
The communities that would lose rail service if the bus service began at Dodge City would include Garden City; Lamar, La Junta, and Trinidad, Colorado; Raton and Lamy, New Mexico; and Las Vegas.
The proposal did not go over well with any of the lawmakers at the meeting, who had called the meeting to ask Amtrak to stand behind agreements it had previously made to upgrade and maintain its route through the south-central U.S.
Advocates of the route contend slicing it into three segments will destroy travel continuity and eventually lead to discontinuance of long-distance service altogether, suggesting perhaps that is Amtrak’s ultimate intent.
The nearly 2,300-mile passenger train service has run daily between Chicago and Los Angeles since 1974. It’s been known as the Southwest Chief since 1984.
“I was very disappointed in the nature of the meeting and the lack of commitment on the part of Amtrak to keep its word and contribute the $3 million match toward this TIGER grant application,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas on Tuesday.
Moran was referring to a federal grant awarded last year to upgrade more than 200 miles of rail primarily in Colfax County, Colorado.
It was the third federal TIGER grant awarded to communities along the Southwest Chief route to upgrade the line, starting with a $12.4 million grant awarded to Garden City in 2014 and a second $15.2 million grant made in 2015 to the city of La Junta, Colorado.
Each grant required a commitment from Amtrak, communities along the route, the states of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, and BNSF Railway – which owns the tracks – for matching dollars.
The city of Hutchinson has committed to all the grants, for a cumulative $37,500.
The repair funding was jointly sought after Amtrak slowed its trains traveling through western Kansas and eastern Colorado because of the condition of the aging track, which was causing trains moving at the standard passenger train speed of 69 mph to rock severely.
BNSF had reduced its maintenance of the 670-mile route across the three states because of less freight traffic on the line and less need for higher speeds for its trains.
Amtrak provided $4 million matches on the first two grants and pledged $3 million to the Colfax County grant.
However, after federal transportation officials awarded the grant Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson sent a letter to Colfax County demanding a cost-share plan be developed for maintaining the line between Jansen, Colorado, and Lamy, New Mexico before Amtrak would fulfill its matching-grant commitment.
That’s because, though BNSF owns the 219-mile segment of track, it is used only by Amtrak, so its full maintenance costs fall solely on Amtrak. The carrier estimated repair costs range from $30 million to $50 million, plus future annual maintenance cost of about $3 million.
In its presentation last week, the railroad indicated the ”‘piecemeal’ strategy for preservation of the route has resulted in difficult safety choices.”
That’s because railroads are also under a mandated December 2018 deadline to install Positive Train Controls along all routes, a system which can automatically stop a train that’s not under an engineer’s control. Preliminary estimates show at least $55 million is required to complete installation of PTC on the route.
“The financial investment of the magnitude needed to retain this portion of the routes is not prudent given the broader needs across the network,” an Amtrak PowerPoint slide stated.
Anderson, incidentally, a former airline CEO, was appointed to his post at Amtrak in July 2017.
It was his predecessor, Joe Boardman, who had committed Amtrak to the TIGER grants.
The lawmakers first sent a letter to Anderson, Moran said, asking Amtrak to honor its commitment. But when they received “an inadequate response,” they asked for the meeting in D.C.
“We asked for the meeting with our colleagues to make sure Amtrak followed through on its commitment,” he said of last week’s meeting, which also included Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).
“The end result of the meeting with Mr. Anderson and a bunch of his staff was certainly no suggestion that their mind had been changed,” Moran said. “Then the conversation devolved into a slide presentation and conversation by Mr. Anderson about the financial challenges of the system and systemic issues of the current Southwest Chief route.”
“He went on to talk about alternatives, including bus service instead of train service,” Moran said.
The scenarios, which were not detailed, included options of implementing charter bus service from Albuquerque to either Dodge City or La Junta, Colorado.
That would mean segmenting the train service – with one route from Los Angeles to Albuquerque and another from Chicago to either Dodge City or La Junta – with each of the trains then turning around at those endpoints.
It could also result in different route schedules, to make them daylight or overnight trains, according to the PowerPoint presentation.
“That was not a commitment by the CEO to the Southwest Chief,” Moran said. “Not just for the $3 million, but more importantly a commitment to supporting the Southwest Chief. That’s unsatisfactory to me.”
Amtrak, in a request for comment on the meeting, confirmed the meeting and that Amtrak indicated it is “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.”
The options, according to the statement, “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.”
“Significant future costs are facing Amtrak to upgrade the BNSF track,” the statement continued. “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.”
Moran noted there are two pending appointments to the Amtrak board of directors which require Senate confirmation.
“We have placed a hold so they can’t be considered,” Moran said. “We’re trying to figure out ways to get leverage. Senator Udall and I are members of the Appropriations Committee and we’ve inserted language in the appropriation bill requiring Amtrak’s financial commitment with communities and states on the route. After our conversations with Mr. Anderson, we intend to do more.”
He found the CEO’s attitude toward long-distance passenger service “incompatible with the purpose of Amtrak, which is to provide service to places not likely to earn a profit doing so,” Moran said.
“The agreement between BNSF and Amtrak is that Amtrak is responsible for that maintenance,” Moran noted. “There is nobody else in this equation. The cities, states and BNSF are all abiding by what they agreed to. Amtrak is the only one reneging on their commitment.”
The lawmakers came to the meeting with suggestions on ways Amtrak could maintain the Jansen-to-Lamy line, Moran said.
“While the segment of track is in New Mexico, the consequences affect Kansas,” he said. “That was dismissed and never taken seriously by Mr. Anderson. He did not want to talk to us about it. He wanted to talk about the financial challenges of the system.”
While the Southwest Chief was the only route explicitly discussed, Anderson indicated he’s off the opinion long-distance passenger trains don’t pay their own way, Moran said.
“This is more than just the Southwest Chief,” Moran said. “If he’s interested in damaging the Southwest Chief, there is no doubt he considers other long-distance passenger services in the same way.”
The News also reached out to Sen. Roberts and Rep. Roger Marshall for comment.
Roberts did not respond.
“Congressman Marshall was not a part of the meeting,” stated his press secretary, Charyssa Parent, in an email. “He has heard from many communities along the route and understands their concerns about the change in long-distance service.”
“He is disappointed that New Mexico has failed to build the types of collaborative win-win relationships that Kansas has, which have led to significant sections of the rail line being upgraded with a combination of state, local and federal resources,” Parent stated.
Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Kansas, stated in an email he believes that Amtrak intends to implement the bus service after the PTC deadline of Dec. 31.
“The effect of this would be damaging, not only to those cities that would lose rail service but to all Southwest Chief cities,” Stair stated. “Understand, ridership drops substantially – I understand by half – with every transfer. So we are really discussing long-term the discontinuance of service.”