Summit held to keep Amtrak service on track

4/11/2012

By SHAJIA AHMAD

By SHAJIA AHMAD

sahmad@gctelegram.com

Advocates of passenger rail service said their aim is to stay on track as they look for funding solutions to keep the Southwest Chief alive and running in this part of the country.

A portion of the cross-country route operated by Amtrak runs through western Kansas, southeast Colorado, and northern New Mexico, but is in danger of being re-routed south if outside sources of funding for the track's maintenance don't surface in the next few years.

That was the message from Amtrak authorities who met with a coalition of communities across all three states at a summit held Tuesday in Garden City, to spell out the funding challenges facing the government-owned corporation and to deliberate where the stakeholders move from here.

"We're here talking because it's not a panic. It's not like tomorrow we're going to have to do something different," Paul Vilter, assistant vice president of Amtrak, said during the gathering held at the Finnup Center for Conservation Education. "But within a pretty short time frame, within a couple years, we have to figure out how to move forward."

The uncertain future of the portion of the passenger rail route stems from ongoing struggles over maintenance costs of the rail track that is owned and operated by BNSF Railway, the second-largest freight railroad network in North America.

Vilter said Tuesday as BNSF has shifted its freight traffic in recent years to an alternative track known as the "Transcon" route, BNSF's "utility" of this portion of the track has decreased dramatically, shifting the burden for its upkeep to Amtrak.

The burden of maintaining, repairing and replacing the track line is estimated at about $10 million per year and $100 million in long-term improvement needs, funds that must spent to keep the Southwest Chief running through Garden City and a host of other communities in Colorado and New Mexico in future years, Vilter said.

Otherwise, BNSF's Transcon railroad route, which runs south of Newton and on through the Texas Panhandle toward New Mexico, could become the Southwest's Chief's new course in years ahead.

"It's been known for some time ... that freight traffic on this line is declining," the Amtrak VP also said. "We're really facing two things together here. One is an annual maintenance (cost) and the other a capitalized maintenance. One is about keeping it going, fixing the things that break, that have to be fixed every year, like filling potholes in your streets and roads. ... Unfortunately, there's also a long-range capital (cost). Rail is made of steel, it's very durable but wears out eventually. Within the next 10 years, that's on the rise within this line."

Already, Amtrak has been forced to slow its trains through parts of western Kansas because of the deteriorating track conditions, from an ideal 90 mph to as slow as 60 mph in some areas.

Amtrak authorities reiterated their position during the summit that they want to see the Southwest Chief route maintained through this area for its historic significance through the heart of the West, but can't absorb the costs on their own.

Ray Lang, a senior director of government affairs with Amtrak who also spoke during open portions of the meeting, said legislation at the federal level would be key to identifying a funding solution that will tackle the multi-million dollar problem.

"I think it's gotta be a three-state effort," Lang said, adding that active support and advocacy from all three state's federal leaders must take place for transportation funding to transpire.

Portions of the rail summit were closed to give the business stakeholders involved privacy in which to negotiate their needs, including discussing cost-sharing options between the communities and how to move forward. Several state lawmakers, including both Kansas House and Senate members, also attended.

Other portions of the program were open, allowing individuals interested in offering their two cents the opportunity to voice their concerns about a potential re-route.

Beverly Babb, a tourism advocate from La Junta, Colo., said during an open portion of the meeting that the loss of the Southwest Chief has the potential to significantly affect southeastern Colorado's tourism industry.

"When you say the word stakeholder, the real stakeholder is the passenger," Babb said. "We got to keep this thing running."

John Hogg, a scout executive with the Santa Fe Trail Council Boy Scouts of America, also spoke about the Southwest Chief's significance to some younger passengers.

Hogg, who heads a chapter in Garden City, said thousands of Boy Scouts ride the train annually to travel to the Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, N.M., making their stop in nearby Raton, N.M.

The Raton stop boasted 16,749 passengers last year, according to Amtrak officials, the highest of the nine communities affected along the portion of the route in question.

The figure is comparable to the 18,000 or so users who get on and off the train annually in western Kansas, as well, a figure provided by Amtrak representatives. The Garden City station serviced 7,511 passengers in 2011.

Amtrak ridership continues to be "strong," with passenger numbers increasing nine out of the last 10 years, according to Lang.

Created by Congress in 1971, Amtrak hosted over 30 million riders in 2011 and expects more than 31 million passengers this year, according to Lang.

The Southwest Chief runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles, and is one of 15 long-distance routes operated by Amtrak.

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