In the News

The Newton Kansan
Chad Frey

U.S. Senators Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts of Kansas recently joined a bipartisan group of senators urging Amtrak to not stub the Southwest Chief and use charter buses for a portion of the route.

Senators from six states cosigned a letter to Amtrak CEO Richard H. Anderson.

“Long-distance passenger rail routes provide much-needed transportation access for over four million riders in 325 communities in 40 states,” the senators wrote. “Replacing train service through rural communities with buses is troubling, particularly for a quasi-governmental entity entrusted with an important public transportation mission. 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.”

The letter was led by U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and was also signed by Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). The letter was sent to Amtrak President and CEO Richard H. Anderson and expresses deep concern that Amtrak is considering suspending operation of the Southwest Chief passenger train and is focusing on a plan to replace long-distance train service along the route with bus service.

The Southwest Chief runs east/west between Chicago and Los Angeles, stopping at more than 30 stations on the route including Newton. Newton is the 10th busiest station on the route and the most used passenger station in Kansas. In addition to the Southwest Chief train, Amtrak also operates a charter bus service to connection Newton to the Heartland Flyer route operating between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas.

The Southwest Chief stops in several Kansas communities including Lawrence, Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City. The Southwest Chief connects towns and cities in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Last month Anderson met with senators from New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas to explain that the railroad would not fund a $3 million committment to a TIGER grant to fund rail improvements in New Mexico. At the same time Anderson presented a plan to senators to substitute bus service for train service between Albquerque, New Mexico, and Dodge City. Amtrak spokesmen state that a final decision on the future of the Chief has not been made.

There are two issues — the first a section of BNSF track in Colorado and New Mexico maintained by the BNSF, upon which Amtrak is running the only trains. That leaves Amtrak with an estimated $3 million in required maintenance to be done each year. The second of those issues is a section of track in New Mexico owned by the RailRunner, a railroad commuter line in New Mexico, where positive train control has not been installed and likely will not be.

Amtrak has a demand for the section of track in Colorado and New Mexico — that states chip in for the annual maintenance.

Amtrak has no solution for the Positive Train Control option. It is the responsibility of the host railroad to install PTC, which the RailRunner has not been able to do. In a discussion this week with city representatives, Amtrak confirmed without PTC installed that the Southwest Chief will be suspended between Dodge City and Albuquerque Jan. 1, 2019.

There could be waivers issued by federal regulators to allow for trains to operate without it; however, that waiver may not be in place by the deadline.

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