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“It’s just, like, unbelievable”: Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train could be suspended through Colorado

Advocates incredulous at the change in Amtrak's outlook, including a bipartisan group of politicians in Washington, D.C., now wonder if the carrier intends to dismantle its long-haul network

Passengers disembark the Southwest Chief in La Junta in March 2018. (Jeff Thomas, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Amtrak is considering whether to suspend Southwest Chief train service through a section of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico around the new year and replace the link in the historic line with an 11-hour bus ride.

The proposal comes as the rail carrier grapples with what it says are necessary safety upgrades, unsustainable upkeep costs and declining ridership, even after small towns across those three states and members of Congress have been investing cash and political capital for years to keep the train on its tracks.

That’s not to mention the work and investments Amtrak has made.

“It’s just, like, unbelievable all the money we’ve raised and all the work we’ve done for them to talk about pulling the plug,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, one of the line’s biggest boosters. He sees the train as an important element of economic development in his region.

Advocates incredulous at the change in Amtrak’s outlook, including a bipartisan group of politicians in Washington, D.C., now wonder if the carrier intends to dismantle its long-haul network across the U.S. and will test the waters by eliminating the Southwest Chief altogether. Amtrak says when it comes to the Chief, it is facing a financial burden it can’t carry.

“This is about rural America and keeping connected to the rest of the nation,” said La Junta City Manager Rick Klein, a fierce advocate for the Southwest Chief whose town has one of three Colorado stops along the line. “The only way rural America becomes flyover country, is if Amtrak makes it flyover country.”

Amtrak officials are scheduled to meet with stakeholders on Tuesday in Raton, N.M., where the train has a stop, to discuss the Southwest Chief’s future. (“The meetings are not public,” said Jason Abrams, an Amtrak spokesman.)

The problem: A lonely stretch of track in southern Colorado

The Southwest Chief has been part of Amtrak’s network since the 1970s and operated under different names for decades before. But now the carrier says the line is unsustainable because it needs $3 million a year to maintain a 219-mile section of track between Trinidad and Lamy, N.M.

The track is owned by the freight runner BNSF Railway but is used only by the Southwest Chief.

The 219-mile section of track, from Trinidad to Lamy, N.M., on which the Southwest Chief’s future hinges. BNSF Railway owns the section, but only the Southwest Chief uses it, which Amtrak says has left them facing millions and millions of dollars in maintenance and upgrade costs. (Jesse Paul via Google Maps)

Amtrak also claims the stretch will need $30 million to $50 million in “critical capital investments” in coming years, in addition to costly safety improvements such as the automated feature known as positive train control.

Advocates note that Southwest Chief ridership has been mostly steady since 2011, and they say Amtrak should be able to cover the upkeep costs. The advocates point out, too, that they have been trying to raise money to pay for repairs through federal grants.

Finally, rail line backers and the owner of the tracks say positive train control isn’t required by the Federal Railroad Administration on the stretch of track from Trinidad to Lamy.

The conflicting points of view have Chief advocates scratching their heads and accusing Amtrak of abandoning earlier commitments to the train’s future. They feel the busing option could be the nail in the train’s coffin.

“It will reduce ridership by something like 50 percent,” said Jim Souby, who leads the passenger rail advocacy group Colorail, of Amtrak’s proposal to bus passengers between Dodge City, Kan., and Albuquerque, N.M.
 

A canary in the coal mine for long-haul rail?

Passenger rail advocates say if the 2,265-mile Southwest Chief, which runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, can falter, any of the costly long-haul lines criss-crossing the nation can, too. (The train makes stops in Colorado in Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad. Another Amtrak route, the California Zephyr, runs through Denver, Winter Park, Granby, Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction.)

“The suspension of rail service along the Southwest Chief route raises serious questions as to whether passenger rail service will be eliminated in rural communities across the country,” a bipartisan group of 10 senators, including Colorado’s Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Republican Cory Gardner, wrote to Amtrak president and CEO Richard Anderson in late July.

The Southwest Chief has been at risk for years because of millions of dollars in needed track upgrades in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. But small towns across those states banded together to help raise the money and persuade federal officials to invest in the route.

So far, they’ve been successful, and miles of track have been repaired.

But then late last year, as the coalition was trying to secure more grant money, Amtrak announced it would not provide crucial matching dollars until a long-term plan for the section from Trinidad to Lamy was solidified.

“Given the broad investment needs of Amtrak’s National Network, these are costs that Amtrak cannot afford to pay,” the carrier said in a letter to Congress.

And then came the busing proposal.

In a presentation to federal elected officials on June 19, Amtrak said: “The financial investment of the magnitude needed to retain this portion of the route is not prudent given the broader needs across the network.”

During that presentation Amtrak CEO Anderson — who was appointed to the post in July 2017 — also said the Southwest Chief operated at a loss of $56 million for the 2017 fiscal year, or roughly $154 per rider.

The presentation highlighted the low on-time performance of the train and offered data showing hundreds of millions of dollars in operating losses across Amtrak’s long-haul routes, as well as statistics emphasizing how more than 80 percent of the carrier’s passengers take trips of 250 miles or less.

The presentation promised that if the busing plan is implemented, “all communities losing rail service will stay connected to the Amtrak network via dedicated, high-quality, Amtrak-chartered bus service.”


Amtrak says the Chief is unique — and so costly — because it is the only Amtrak route where its train is the sole customer for track it does not own.


“Significant future costs are facing Amtrak to upgrade the BNSF track,” Amtrak said in a statement to The Colorado Sun. “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.”
 

Passengers line up to board Amtrak’s Southwest Chief in Raton, New Mexico on July 18, 2018. The section of the train service from Chicago to Los Angeles that runs through Colorado could be replaced with an 11-hour bus ride. (Larry Ryckman, The Colorado Sun)

“All these communities put in money”

Elected officials and rail advocates who have worked for years to protect the Chief have been shocked by the sequence of events.

“A lot of communities, including Pueblo and the state of Colorado, invested a lot of money thinking we had a partner in Amtrak. Those dollars would be for naught,” Pueblo County’s Pace said. “Think about La Junta and Trinidad and Dodge City, Kansas. Think of Bent County. All these communities put in money.”

The state of Colorado contributed $1 million to one federal matching grant effort, Pace said, and Pueblo County has spent more than $150,000 on Southwest Chief preservation efforts.

Pace leads Colorado’s Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, a panel formed by the Colorado legislature that is in charge of protecting the Amtrak line and exploring expanded passenger rail service in the state.


Sen. Gardner was among members of Congress who attended the June 19 meeting about the Southwest Chief with Anderson. He said it was “cordial, with a cold front.”

“I think that they thought they could sort of slap us on the backs and say, ‘Hey, we’re with you in spirit,’ and then provide some kind of alternative that would eventually go away as well,” Gardner told The Colorado Sun on Aug. 1. “This, to me, is they were trying to put some salve on a wound and think that we would think that everything is OK. That’s just not acceptable.”

Gardner is convinced that Amtrak is working to eliminate the route and questioned its numbers. “Nobody understands the calculator Amtrak has.”

“I think they are absolutely looking for ways to abandon this rail line. Absolutely,” he said. “I don’t know why. Maybe Amtrak just wants to be an East Coast organization. The national passenger rail system then becomes the exclusive domain of New York City. That’s just not what it was meant to be.”

Southwest Chief ridership statistics compiled by the National Rail Passengers Association show that numbers have not fluctuated much since 2011. The low was about 352,000 passengers in 2014 and the high was more than 367,000 in 2015.

As for the costly safety upgrades in the Raton Pass area that Amtrak says it needs? BNSF spokesman Joe Sloan said the tracks there are “compliant with all (Federal Railroad Administration) standards” and thus aren’t required to have positive train control.

Capacity on the Southwest Chief depends on how many cars Amtrak runs during each trip, but it typically carries about 300 passengers. Charter buses usually hold about 50 people, meaning it could take as many as six buses to shuttle people between Albuquerque and western Kansas.

A solution on the horizon?

On Aug. 1 the U.S. Senate passed an amendment from Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, and backed by Colorado’s senators, seeking to allocate $50 million to the Southwest Chief’s cause in the hope of compelling Amtrak to contribute matching money for a federal grant.

Gardner was optimistic about its passage but cautioned, “we’ve got to work with the House members. We’re nowhere out of the woods yet.”

The House is in recess until September.

This story first appeared in The Colorado Sun’s newsletter, The Sunriser. You can subscribe here: cosun.co/thesunriser