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Anderson and crew have it all wrong about Raton Pass

In their recent employee bulletin Amtrak management, (Anderson and crew) upped the ante by demanding over $100 million for the route of the Southwest Chief between Kansas and New Mexico, including “full PTC”.  If you want to hold politicians to ransom you wave the safety flag.  An elected official can be no more be against safety than she or he can oppose motherhood or apple pie, so it’s a slick tactic.  Our job is to expose it as a sham.  We can spend billions on marginal improvements with full PTC on every mile of track, or we can be sensible and assess the risk, keeping in mind that every dollar spent on PTC is a dollar that cannot be spent on track, improved and safer access for the handicapped, lighting and paving at stations, all of which improve safety.  As for taking people off trains and putting them on buses, it’s quite unbelievable for a supposedly safety conscious organization to even consider such a thing.

Per former NARP President Ross Capon:

“Putting people in buses to ride over Raton Pass would worsen safety, not improve it. Some rail-to-bus and bus-to-rail transfer injuries are likely, especially among older passengers. Moreover, Grady Cothen Jr., a leading PTC expert who retired in 2010 as FRA Deputy Associate Administrator for Safety Standards and remained active as a consultant until about two years ago, has told us that—based on available information—risks are limited on most of the Dodge City-Madrid segment because competing traffic is light in some places, nonexistent in others. The absence of heavy axle load freight traffic should also make derailment prevention easier, given the reduced risk of rail breaks and freight braking-induced kinks. Indeed, with limited PTC functionality procured at a tiny fraction of the $55 million Amtrak has quoted, this segment should have lower overall risk, even without PTC, than most of Amtrak’s network. (FRA does require PTC on the 20+ miles between La Junta and Las Animas Junction, due to freight tonnage — this is part of BNSF’s coal route.)

Amtrak claims SW Chief infrastructure capital costs are $100+ million over five years including $55m for PTC.

* The bulk of the $55m is not reasonable, per the above. 

* $22.5 million (the non-Amtrak share of the latest TIGER grant) would become available if and when Amtrak releases its $3m.

* This creates a dramatically more manageable scenario than Amtrak has portrayed.

Amtrak claims $3m operating costs — as has been noted, this figure would be dwarfed by the combined impact of charter bus expenses and revenues lost due to the bus operation.”

Once again much of Amtrak’s thinking is driven by their own negative attitude towards their own product, i.e. the interstate sleeper trains that are a key element of the National Network.  A growth minded organization would be figuring out how to add trains to this lightly used but scenic section of track which would not suffer from delays caused by freight trains.  If you read this quarter’s Steel Wheels you will see some good ideas about increasing revenue (making stations revenue and activity centers, 24 hour dining cars), as well as an essay on reorganizing Amtrak for the 21st century.  The threat to the Southwest Chief has brought some life back into the advocacy movement.  Let’s momentum and campaign for a reformed Amtrak with new management for the National Network.

Paul Dyson, 17th August.