In the News

Wichita Eagle
Rafael Garcia

Westward passenger train service on the Southwest Chief line should stay in place thanks to a Senate appropriations bill after Amtrak said it was considering replacing rail service between Dodge City and Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a bus connection.

On Wednesday, the US Senate passed a transportation appropriations bill with an amendment that includes $50 million in funds for track maintenance and safety improvements on the Southwest Chief’s route and compels Amtrak to stick to its commitment of providing matching funds for a federal grant to improve tracks along the passenger train’s route in Colorado.

The amendment would also “effectively reverse” Amtrak’s decision to end rail service between Dodge City and Albuquerque, a statement from Sen. Jerry Moran’s office said.

Udall of New Mexico introduced the bipartisan amendment, which was co-sponsored by Senators Pat Roberts, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet of Colorado — senators whose states would be affected by the discontinuation of rail service.

“As the divide between urban and rural communities in America continues to expand, passenger rail services like the Southwest Chief are invaluable in connecting Kansans to the rest of the country while also bringing visitors from out of state to our local communities,” Moran said in the statement. “I applaud the bipartisan efforts to keep the Southwest Chief operational for our rural communities and will continue working with Amtrak to make certain this route remains available for the Kansans who need it.”

In the statement, Roberts said the senators had heard from many Kansans who opposed replacing passenger rail service with a bus line.

In June, Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson told lawmakers that Amtrak was exploring discontinuing passenger train service on the Southwest Chief’s route and instead installing a connecting bus service between the cities. Amtrak said it couldn’t both fund maintenance along that portion of the route and install Positive Train Controls, a system that automatically stops trains in the absence of an engineer, by a December federal deadline without additional financial investment. The company estimated that maintenance along the line would require more than $50 million in the coming years.

Lawmakers had asked Amtrak to stick to its pledge of contributing $3 million in matching funds for a $16 million TIGER grant to Colfax County, New Mexico, in 2017. The grant continued a route stabilization project started in 2014 with a $12.4 million grant to Garden City and a $15.2 million grant to La Junta, Colorado, in 2015 to replace and improve tracks owned by BNSF Railway.

The grants required that Amtrak, BNSF, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and communities along the route commit to provide matching funds. Amtrak provided $4 million in each of the 2014 and 2015 grants.

Amtrak is the sole user of a 216-mile section of track between Colorado and New Mexico, which means that Amtrak is responsible for about $3 million in maintenance along that section each year.

In a letter from Amtrak to Congress, the company claimed that ridership on the Southwest Chief was steadily declining, but a separate letter from the Rail Passengers Association rebuffed that argument, saying that ridership in fiscal year 2017 was down only 1 percent from a peak in 2015 and up 14 percent from 2009.

An Amtrak spokesman said the company appreciated the senate’s support for intercity passenger rail and the company’s national network and would look forward to working with Congress as it finalized its spending bill. The bill still needs to be voted on by the House.

In May, Amtrak closed its ticket windows in Topeka and Garden City as part of the company’s move toward online ticketing.

The Southwest Chief currently runs between Chicago and Los Angeles on a daily basis and includes stops in Kansas City, Missouri; Lawrence, Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City.

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