The next Southwest Chief

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, July 22, 2018

Amtrak is struggling to find a fix for the dilemma facing the Chicago-to-Los Angeles Southwest Chief. From Trinidad, Colo., to west of Lamy, N.M., 200-plus miles, it is by law solely responsible for maintenance of a 79-mph railroad, because BNSF Railway several years ago ended all freight service over this route it continues to own. The costs are significant: $3 million a year in normalized maintenance and $50 million in due course in capital needs, including positive train control over portions of the route. The options are few. BNSF has taken off the table (if it were ever there) the possibility of rerouting the train via Wichita, Kan., and Amarillo, Tex., over the railroad’s primary freight route, and small wonder—train density over portions of this double-track line is at 100 a day during parts of the week.

Nor is Amtrak chief executive Richard Anderson willing to pour money down a rathole, thereby giving such critics as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial writers yet another reason to demand an end to Amtrak’s federal subsidy. It sought from the states of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico a comprehensive long-term funding plan before committing more money to this route and got no concrete plan. Thus came the proposal, lame as it may be, to bus passengers 500 miles between Garden City in western Kansas and Albuquerque, N.M. Does this seem an optimal solution to you? No, of course. But what is Amtrak to do and be taken seriously by American taxpayers?

Well, you reply, serve Chicago-Los Angeles with a section of the Chicago-Oakland California Zephyr, with Los Angeles cars splitting from the mother train between Salt Lake City and LA.

Not a bad idea, except that the California Zephyr looks more and more like the next Southwest Chief. Its super-scenic route through the mountains and deserts of Colorado and Utah is beginning to resemble in economic terms the expanse between Trinidad and Raton. Let me explain.

In the first quarter of 2018, Union Pacific averaged but seven trains a day through the Moffat Tunnel 50 miles west of Denver. Two were the Cal Zephyr and two others belonged to BNSF, whose Denver-California freights operate on trackage rights. UP operated triweekly manifest trains between Denver and Salt Lake City, one day in one direction, the other returning. The other two trains—one each way—carried coal or empty gondolas. Every other day, on average, one loaded coal train originated on the branch line north of Bond, Colo., near Steamboat Springs. The other originated from a coal mine south of Grand Junction in west Colorado. From Grand Junction to Provo, the triweekly manifest freight was balanced by triweekly coal trains.

Let me add this up for you. In essence, Union Pacific is down to one freight in each direction every day between eastern Utah and Bond, and one and a half freights from Bond to Denver. Take away coal, and almost nothing is left of its freight business. Now ask yourself what is the future of Colorado coal? Answer: It is two mine closings from becoming extinct.

When that day comes, which may soon happen, Amtrak will be caught in another vise. Does it want to maintain the expensive, six-mile-long Moffat Tunnel and potentially all 515 miles from Denver to Provo, Utah? The train’s deficit would become intolerable. Would Union Pacific offer the option of a reroute by way of Rawlins? Maybe, but don’t count on it. And if it did, kiss goodbye to the allure of the California Zephyr.

I’m not trying to depress you, but simply on the basis of facts before us, the scenario I just laid out seems inevitable, whether it occurs in five months or five years. What I wonder, living 30 minutes from the Zephyr’s route through the Rockies, is why Union Pacific has spent fortunes in recent years maintaining this line in immaculate fashion. It puzzles me.

Now you tell me, my imaginative co-conspirators: What should Amtrak do today to put off catastrophe a year or more down the road?  Don’t say it’s Richard Anderson’s fault. Like the trap in which the Southwest Chief is caught, this is not of his making.—Fred W. Frailey

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