Federal lawmakers received a commitment from Amtrak on Wednesday that it will continue the route of the Southwest Chief at least through fiscal 2019.
U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, questioned Amtrak officials during an Wednesday hearing on the future of the route that operates between Chicago and Los Angeles, with daily stops in Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City.
Udall asked, directly, about the possible use of buses in parts of Kansas, New Mexico and Arizona along the route, which Amtrak had indicated during a previous meeting with a group of regional congressmen this summer that it was considering.
Scot Naparstek, executive vice president and chief officer for Amtrak, said that for the year 2019 that plan would not come to fruition.
"We are well aware of the Senate's position and the directive that is part of the 2019 appropriations act," Naparstek said. "We plan to run the Southwest Chief as is through fiscal year 2019. We await Congress' dealing with the Southwest Chief issue in conference and the final spending bill."
Both Moran and Udall were satisfied with that answer, though both also expressed disappointment that Amtrak will not commit to a $3 million match for an already approved federal TIGER grant — the third such grant issued to assist with rail repairs on the line.
“I am pleased to hear you say that Amtrak will continue to run — to operate — the line in its current form through Fiscal Year ’19,” Moran said. “I think that’s a positive development, something we were unaware of, and we’ll continue to work to see that the legislative efforts that we’ve undertaken are successful.”
Moran and Udall inserted an amendment in a transportation spending bill that would allocate $50 million to Amtrak for rail repairs and other improvements to keep the Southwest Chief running for another year.
"You failed, in my view, to live up to your word," Moran said. "... We do not want to lose the TIGER Grant money, and that would be a disadvantage to Amtrak."
Naparstek stated that while waiting on the spending bill, it will continue to engage with stakeholders in Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico regarding the Southwest Chief.
Amtrak had also issued a statement earlier that it would cease rail service on lines that are not equipped with Postive Train Control, a computerized safety measure, after Dec. 31.
Naparstek also walked that statement back on Wednesday.
"The route on which the Southwest Chief operates on is either PTC complaint, will be under alternative schedule or under exemption ... so we will be in compliance," Naparstek said. "Our goal will be to be PTC compliance or equivalency."
“Amtrak is committed to operating its trains with Positive Train Control (PTC) or a PTC-equivalent, across all routes,” Naparstek said. “We expect all routes to be compliant with the law and operating passenger rail on January 2019. For those routes and locations on an alternative schedule or an exclusion, Amtrak will conduct risk assessments and put in place risk mitigations until those locations have PTC or PTC-equivalency.”