Passenger Rail Service
8:00 pm
Tue February 25, 2014

Is it the end of the line for Amtrak’s Southwest Chief?

Carolyn LeBeau, right, takes in the New Mexico landscape, while Ginger Vermooten takes a photograph from the Southwest Chief.
Carolyn LeBeau, right, takes in the New Mexico landscape, while Ginger Vermooten takes a photograph from the Southwest Chief.
Credit Mark Holm / nytimes.com

Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico have until the end of the year to improve the railroad track or lose the Southwest Chief passenger rail line.  According to The New York Times Amtrak has asked the three states to put up $40 million over the next 20 years to help pay for track upgrades and maintenance to keep the track viable.  Unless all three states pitch in, Amtrak says it will potentially drop nine small-town stations in favor of existing track in Texas and Oklahoma. 

Amtrak downgraded the speed of the train from 90 to 60 in 2010 because of the condition of the tracks.  That speed is not efficient for a modern passenger train.

“The train is not viable as a business when it operates at a lower speed, because it ends up being slower than driving,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman, adding that the company does not have the funding to pay for the upgrades on its own.

Some state officials are balking because they say Amtrak gets federal financial support and should cover the costs itself.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe owns the line.  Amtrak’s lease on the track is up at the end of 2015.  .

In Kansas, the cities of Hutchinson, Newton, Dodge City, and Garden City are part of a coalition to improve the line reported the Dodge City Daily Globe.  Garden City Manager Matt Allen and Dodge City Manager Ken Strobel are asking the House Transportation Committee for support to carve a niche in the Amtrak budget.  The cities hope to get the Southwest Chief line seen as a higher priority for existing funding levels.  Amtrak officials say there are many wants on their limited budget with little likelihood it will increase.

Some rail watchers think Amtrak is using the Southwest Chief routing issue to sidestep its congressional mandate to subsidize long-distance trains — those traveling more than 750 miles — with federal funds according to a recent story in the Amarillo Globe-News.

About 5,000 passengers per year use the depot in Dodge City despite the eastbound train arriving just after midnight and the westbound at 5 a.m.  Garden City has around 7,000.  A total of approximately 250,000 people ride the line each year.