Where is the Southwest Chief headed?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, September 3, 2012

Developments last week deepened Amtrak’s dilemma about how to sustain its Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief. The states of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico told the passenger train company they won’t ante up the $10 million of so needed by the start of 2016 to maintain tracks over which the train operates between Newton, Kan., and Lamy, N.M., over Raton and Glorieta passes.

The problem is this: The present route is little used by host railroad BNSF Railway or (from LaJunta, Colo., to Lamy, N.M., northeast of Albuquerque) not used at all. Its agreement with Amtrak gives BNSF the right to maintain the track at the 40-mph pace it desires going forward (actual speeds are higher now, but will trend down as time goes by). Some $100 million is required to replace worn-out jointed rail and other infrastructure. Plus, there is the issue of ongoing maintenance to permit speeds higher than 40 mph. BNSF’s own needs preclude such investments.

So Amtrak told the three states this spring that unless it is assured of their financial support for the Southwest Chief before the end of 2014, it will seek to reroute the train over the Transcon, BNSF’s busy freight line that goes through Woodward, Okla., Amarillo, Tex., and Clovis N.M. Last week’s letter from the states seemed to slam the door on Amtrak, reports the Santa Fe New Mexican. The most the Kansas legislature would do last month is appoint a study committee to make recommendations.

But a reroute of the Southwest Chief is anything but assured. BNSF’s freight route, used by as many as 80 trains a day, has three single-track segments that on busy days cause trains to back up on both sides. The railroad would certainly demand as a condition for a rerouting that Amtrak pay for closing those single-track stretches, and the cost could easily eclipse the $100 million needed to put new rail on the northern route that the train presently takes. Staying put with the train or moving it will entail huge costs.

Amtrak, in other words, seemed damned either way.

How to break the impasse? Amtrak could pay for the rail out of its own capital budget, but at the cost of postponing its own urgent capital needs. Or it could seek relief from a provision of the new surface transportation legislation enacted this summer, which authorizes grants to preserve long-distance Amtrak routes. But I am unsure how this new provision will be implemented or whether it will be funded to the extent of $100 million.

“We see a important public purpose to staying on the current route,” says Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. “In April we began what can be multiple year discussion about finding a means to keep the Chief on the route until the end of our ability to stay there looms so large in 2016 that we need to take steps in 2015 to develop stations along the alternative route.“

But unless the affected states change course and agree to chip in, or Amtrak pulls that $100 million out of the federal government’s hat like a magician, the very existence of this train could be in doubt three years from now.  — Fred W.Frailey 


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