Southwest Chief: My parting shot

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, September 17, 2012

Wow, I’m never leaving on vacation again. You folks really kicked up the dust in response to my blog two weeks ago (see “Where Is The Southwest Chief Headed?” Sept. 3). The back and forth dialogue was furious and sometimes ferocious. For the most part, this is what I like most about posting my thoughts on this venue: I have my say, then let you have yours.

However, before I get to my point, a word to everyone: Please don’t call each other names. When you say nasty words it inhibits others from chiming in and dialogue is choked off. Disagree all you want; in fact, I want you to disagree — that’s what makes forums like this interesting. But be respectful of each other, or in the future I will delete your posts. Nuff said?

Now, back to my point. Yes, I have more to say. Amtrak tried to bring the states of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico to understand that if they want the Southwest Chief to continue to go through their communities, rather than be diverted to a southerly route or be discontinued or bobtailed, they must come to the train’s support. Specifically, Amtrak says $100 million in capital is needed to restore the route from Newton, Kan., through LaJunta, Colo., and Raton, N.M., to Albuquerque, N.M., to a state of good repair. Thereafter, $10 million per year in maintenance support is necessary to keep it that way. This is because host railroad BNSF Railway has ceased to operate trains between LaJunta and Albuquerque and will henceforth maintain Newton to LaJunta for 40-mph speeds for its relatively few freight trains (and Amtrak). Its contract with Amtrak gives it this right. Maybe all this money needn’t come from the three states, but some should, Amtrak said.

While I was on vacation, my friend and Southwest Chief advocate Evan Stair forwarded to me the official response to Amtrak from those three states. I read their joint letter, and my body temperature went down 5 degrees. They said, in so many nice words, no way, Jose, will we shoulder any such burden. Sayonara, baby! We don’t give a damn!

In so doing, the three state secretaries of transportation wrote the end of this train on its present route. They jerked the chair out from under Amtrak, which can try to patch together a federal government relief package. But if the three states which benefit from it disavow any responsibility whatever, why should Congress go along? The members from Washington and Illinois and California, whose state governments pay dearly for Amtrak service, will be justifiably outraged. Granted, there is a provision in the surface transportation bill passed this summer that could conceivably be milked, but whether it is funded and how it is interpreted is to be determined.

The reality, therefore, is that unless it believes in the Tooth Fairy, Amtrak and its people should go to BNSF’s Matt Rose now and negotiate the best deal they can to reroute the Southwest Chief via Amarillo, Tex., and Clovis, N.M. BNSF will strike a hard bargain. This is its bread and butter, the Transcon, brimming over with important freight trains and studded with three single-track segments that already cause serious delays. The price of admission to the Transcon could conceivably reach $100 million.

Do that, or truncate the train in Kansas City on the east and Albuquerque on the west, or give it up altogether. There are no good options left, folks, thanks to the Dear John letter from Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. So instead of waiting until 2015, Amtrak needs to invoke Plan B right now. — Fred W. Frailey

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy