The Southwest Chief: a “Rose-y” mid-summer update

Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson, RailPAC
Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the RailPAC Board

Here it is mid-summer, 2014, and no final decisions have been made about the future of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief; whether it will continue to run on its historic route west of Newton, Kansas to Albuquerque, New Mexico be re-routed via the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) “Transcon” route through Amarillo, Texas, and Wichita, Kansas, or be eliminated. True, that decision does not have to be made now but will have to be made by the end of this year. Is there any news? Yes, and that news has a “Rose-y” ring to it.

The legislative sessions of the states affected have ended. While none of the states, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico have allocated the final funds to comply with Amtrak’s demands that they participate in preserving the historic route, they have all expressed support for the continuance of the service to the affected areas of their states. The Texas legislature did not meet this year, but the opinion in Texas is that the original route will be selected even though Amarillo is a larger metropolis than any of the towns on the historic route and would support a new train service.

At issue has not been the desirability of service to the smaller stations along the route that might be dropped, but on who will pay to maintain that three-state section since the BNSF does not currently run freight service there on any regular basis. Amtrak is required to fund incremental maintenance above the freight class of operation (49 U.S.C. Section 24309(c). It does not say that the states must pay anything, only that “Amtrak” must pay if it wants the railroad to upgrade to passenger standards. Amtrak has chosen to pass the burden on to the states of KS, CO, and NM, to “participate” if they want the service to continue because Amtrak does not have the funds to fully pay for it and apparently is unwilling to fight in the Congress to get an allocation. Throughout its history, no Amtrak long distance train has ever received any continuing state funding. The Southwest Chief is a “national system” train. But, with Amtrak management’s focus on getting every dollar possible for use in the Northeast Corridor, the precedent of state support for the long distance trains can provide a large pot of additional dollars that can be spent in the NEC, rather than Amtrak having to go to the Congress and get specific money for NEC use. What are they afraid of?

Now, what is the good news? This report began with saying there was some. Early in July Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Boardman rode a special train from Topeka, KS, to Albuquerque, NM, meeting along the way with officials regarding the future of the historic route. Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said “This is about the risk to that route, the communities have been supportive of this, but we do not have an agreement and the clock is ticking.” The special train stopped in Newton, KS, where Magliari spoke of the future by saying, “You lose (the Southwest Chief) and you lose the idea of additional service.” He was referring to plans to expand the Heartland Flyer train north from Oklahoma City through Wichita to Newton and perhaps on to Kansas City and Chicago or even a connecting bus service.

In New Mexico U.S. Senator Martine Heinrich and the NM Governor’s Transportation Cabinet Secretary, Tom Church, joined the train. Church said, “The Southwest Chief is an institution in New Mexico. The Governor and the agency would really like to see it run,” but went on the say that the state would rather see Congress continue to provide funding for Amtrak instead of the state. Boardman expressed his support to continue on this route so that the communities would continue to be served and the Boy Scouts could continue to take the train to their NM Ranch outside Cimarron.

The state of Colorado has come up with funds but has put in a caveat that the train must be re-routed to serve Pueblo. And while that would be a boon for ridership and revenue, as well as provide a closer connection for Denver-Pueblo passengers, it means using two legs of the BNSF that have not had passenger service since 1970. So, that brings up another passenger who rode some of the route with Mr. Boardman and the dignitaries: BNSF President Matt Rose spent several hours in close communication with the Amtrak people. While nothing has “leaked” about their conversation it obviously was bound to have included the Southwest Chief route and its finances.

Here is this writer’s speculation about what Boardman and Rose could have talked about. First, they both must know that freight traffic has increased greatly in recent years, and the BNSF “Transcon” is nearly at capacity. While Amtrak cannot be forced off the section west of Albuquerque, and the historic passenger route in northern NM, CO, and KS, has little or no freight traffic now, should some catastrophe on the Transcon happen the need for an alternate route for freight trains grows more important. Couple that with the obvious state support for preserving the route, Rose may have looked at the potential public relations disaster that might fall his way if the train is rerouted or eliminated. Boardman was playing a high game in this regard. Along with that, could it be that Rose said to Boardman that the railroad will not stand for a reroute to Pueblo and does not want the train on the Transcon? Is it possible that a quid pro quo is in the works?: Amtrak would keep the Southwest Chief on the historic route, but not to Pueblo. In exchange, the BNSF would increase its share of the pot of funds needed to maintain it if Amtrak gets the states to contribute their funds at the beginning, but be promised no additional funds will be requested? Did Rose propose a lower speed limit for the train to, say, less than 70 mph, lowering the maintenance cost?

Backroom deals are what makes this country great. Things get done. That’s something the U.S. Congress no longer feels the need to do, but this deal (if there is one) would not require any legislation at the federal level. How great would it be if it worked to the advantage of all…Amtrak, the BNSF, the states, the communities along the way, and to train riders everywhere. That’s the American way!

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