Amtrak statements raise Southwest Chief termination concerns

Submitted by Evan Stair, President, Passenger Rail Kansas

Yesterday Reuters reported Amtrak may terminate its Chicago-Kansas City-Albuquerque-Flagstaff-Los Angeles passenger train, the Southwest Chief, and state supplemental Missouri River Runners, operating between St. Louis and Kansas City based upon a $30 million dispute with freight railroads (http://yhoo.it/1KYQfYO). Who pays for Positive Train Control (PTC) is the sticking point. PTC, a collision avoidance system, was the recent subjectof written statements submitted by Amtrak and the FCC to a US Senate Commerce Committee. Route terminations were mentioned in this testimony.

Barring possible waivers, PTC installations must be active by December 31,2015. These installations have made national news recently following the tragic Philadelphia Amtrak wreck last month. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of2008 requires that railroads carrying passengers and/or hazardous material install PTC.

Amtrak’s statements come on the heels of four-year efforts in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico to secure local, state, and federal funds to preserve the Southwest Chief route. Amtrak indicated in April 2012 that funds must be identified by the end of 2014 to maintain the passenger train on its present route. Amtrak had warned the train would be rerouted through Wichita and Amarillo if necessary funding was not secured to rehabilitate a rail lineowned by Berkshire Hathaway’s BNSF Railway. Now, the PTC mandate looms large.

Various funding sources have been tapped. Last year, according to the Garden City Telegram, a federal TIGER VI grant request, issued by the City of Garden City, netted $12.5 million (http://bit.ly/1Gwnpzo). Amtrak, BNSF Railway, the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT), Kansas en route communities; Colorado en route communities and counties, the I-25 Coalition, the Colorado Rail Passenger Association, and the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners contributed a $9.3 million match to bring a sum total of $21.8million to the project.

The La Junta Tribune-Democrat reported June 8, 2015 that an application for a second round of funding to preserve the service has been submitted. A $15 million grant is sought this year (http://bit.ly/1FW0CYZ). Pueblo County Commissioners approved $12,500 for this year’s application (http://bit.ly/1JHAEQ2). It was announced June 9, 2015 that New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration committed $1 million to track repairs

(http://bit.ly/1GwOimD). If the TIGER VII grant is awarded, another $24.5 million will go to further rehabilitation.

Still confusion exists. “We are confused as to why Amtrak apparently did not inform the Southwest Chief Commission of other pitfalls that could result in discontinuance, even if the work was outside of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico,” said a concerned Evan Stair, President Passenger Rail Kansas and Passenger Rail Oklahoma. “Maybe a wider swath of participation should have been considered. Is it too late? Certainly the federal government, states, and communities have supported this project in good faith.”

Stair is concerned as Passenger Rail Kansas and its sister organization Passenger Rail Oklahoma consider The Southwest Chief a backbone route for regional aspirations. “While Kansas needs this train to preserve state passenger rail services, Oklahoma and north Texas are depending upon the Southwest Chief and Missouri River Runners for future extension of the Heartland Flyer to Kansas City and beyond. The Dallas/Fort Worth-Kansas City market has not been served since the unfortunate discontinuance of the Lone Star in 1979.”

The Southwest Chief Commission was established by the Colorado Legislature to oversee efforts by Amtrak, BNSF Railway, and the states to ensure continuation of the Southwest Chief Rail Line (http://bit.ly/1JIw58l).Contact: Evan Stair, president, Passenger Rail Kansas: www.PassengerRailKS.org; or Passenger Rail Oklahoma: www.PassnegerRailOK.org. 405.204.5801.