U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran (R) of Kansas is putting a delay on the consideration by the U.S. Senate of three nominees to the Amtrak Board of Directors and wants a solid commitment from the carrier that the long-distance Southwest Chief route will be preserved.
Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson has arranged a meeting later in May with Moran and other senators who represent states that host the daily Chicago-to-Los Angeles route to discuss the Southwest Chief’s future, according to a report published by the Topeka Capital-Journal.
Amtrak as we know it is in the budget crosshairs again, and if proposed cuts go through, it could have a lasting effect on not only our nation’s communities, but Railroad Retirement benefits as well.
President Donald Trump’s budget request proposes a $1.06 billion reduction in funding to Amtrak. Service to rural and mid-sized city destinations would be drastically affected with the adoption of this plan, and 15 routes classified as long distance could eventually lose federal funding due to a change in how funds are allocated.
“We hope that, like last year, this budget is a non-starter,” said Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association (RPA). “But we note with some concern that this time around, the administration appears to be getting a little smarter in its approach — and that approach could yet endanger our trains.”
Rather than cutting the routes outright, as has been proposed in previous Trump budgets, the 2020 plan would shift the money available to fund long-distance routes from Amtrak’s annual outlay to a competitive process. Over a four-year period, the administration would choose the routes that received funds with states applying for funding through the Restoration & Enhancement grant program.
“The Trump Administration seems to be taking a page from anti-long-distance factions in Washington, looking to pit National Network services against the Northeast Corridor. And by moving it to a competitive grant program — controlled by the White House — the administration gets to choose the winners and losers,” Mathews said.
The plan doesn’t sit well with the RPA’s Mathews, and it shouldn’t sit well with SMART Transportation Division rail members. Reducing Amtrak’s long-distance service will result in fewer people at work for the carrier. Fewer people working for the carrier means fewer railroaders paying into Railroad Retirement — a Railroad Retirement Board analysis of Trump’s 2018 budget proposal that would have cut Amtrak’s long-distance routes said an estimated 10,000 rail jobs would go away with the routes’ elimination.
For long-distance rail service to continue, the 2020 budget document suggests that the 23 states that the routes run through begin footing the bill rather than the federal government, which handed many corporations a major tax reduction at the end of 2017.
“In 2020, the Department of Transportation, Amtrak, states, and affected local Governments will collaborate to rationalize the Long Distance network to more efficiently serve modern market needs as a series of shorter-distance, high-performing corridor services where passenger rail as a transportation options (sic) makes sense,” the 2020 budget proposal states on page 78.
The budget goes on to say that “low population areas along the routes will be better served by other modes of transportation, like intercity buses.
“Over time, Federal support for Amtrak would be significantly reduced as Amtrak is able to right-size its network and States play a larger role, as they do now for State-supported and Northeast Corridor services,” the budget proposal concludes.
Hoosier State on the brink
But what happens to smaller places like Indiana, where routes are already in jeopardy?
Mayor Dennis Buckley’s city of Beech Grove is home to one of three Amtrak repair facilities nationwide. The Indianapolis-area shop employs approximately 525 workers and is served by Amtrak’s Hoosier State line that transports passengers from Indianapolis to Chicago as well as Amtrak cars to the Beech Grove facility for repairs.
Beech Grove, Indiana, Mayor Dennis Buckley, left, holds a copy of Trains Magazine that featured his city’s Amtrak repair facility that was presented to him by SMART Transportation Division Indiana State Legislative Director Kenny Edwards, right.
The state’s Legislature and the governor are looking to defund the route, Buckley said, and he finds himself having to fight for the jobs created by both Amtrak and by the businesses that have sprung up around the repair facility in his city of almost 15,000 people.
In a letter to state legislators urging them to support the route, Buckley said that Amtrak brings $100 million to the economy of central Indiana and Beech Grove’s Marion County.
“Amtrak must also become more competitive in the business of local mass transit,” Buckley said, but eliminating the four-stop, 196-mile route would be a severe blow to his community.
“Budgets should be set up to continually fund the Hoosier State line for years to come,” Buckley wrote to legislators, “I certainly recommend that the State of Indiana invests in our future. Our livelihood depends on it.”
As part of his effort, Buckley has reached out to Indianapolis media outlets. He would welcome it if SMART TD members who are Indiana residents talk to their legislators and state Gov. Eric Holcomb about maintaining the route’s funding.
The targeting of Amtrak’s long-distance routes is not new.
In addition to the administration’s yearly call to eliminate long-distance service, there was a battle waged last year over the Southwest Chief. Amtrak leadership had sought to replace portions of the route between Dodge City, Kan., to Albuquerque, N.M., with bus shuttles because of a lack of Positive Train Control (PTC) technology.
Similar action might be needed yet again to prevent any proposed harmful cuts to Amtrak’s long-distance routes as the federal budgeting process continues. SMART Transportation Division will keep members apprised.
Amtrak has informed federal, state and local officials along the route of the daily Chicago-to-Los Angeles Southwest Chief that it will provide matching funds to enable a federal grant to be awarded for safety and reliability upgrades in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, the carrier said in a news release Feb. 27.
The funds available to upgrade the route came after Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the FY2019 Appropriations Act, which included funding for Amtrak and intercity passenger rail, earlier in the month.
The legislation set aside at least $50 million of its National Network grant for improvements to the Southwest Chief route. Amtrak is using $3 million of these funds to match a $16 million grant successfully sought by these states, counties and cities and awarded to Colfax County, N.M. The grant and matching funds from the partners will result in an investment of more than $26 million in preserving the daily route from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Amtrak and BNSF Railway began community discussions regarding safety and other infrastructure improvements in 2011. Since then, more than $80 million has been committed from U.S. Department of Transportation grant programs, state and local governments, Amtrak and BNSF.
As reported in prior articles published on the SMART Transportation Division website and in the SMART TD News, Amtrak has been considering “bus bridges” on portions of the route or the potential discontinuation of the route altogether.
“We’re glad it’s getting funds to go through Colorado,” said Colorado State Legislative Director Carl Smith. “We’re supportive of all measures to continuing the Chief’s service through our state.”
Amtrak said in the release that it will use the newly available federal capital funding to continue needed work on the next route segment in New Mexico.
The carrier said in its release it is working on a long-term financial plan with state and local partners to address the unique challenges of the Southwest Chief route, particularly where Amtrak is the only user of BNSF tracks in Colorado and New Mexico.
A feed company whose truck rolled down a hill and crashed into railroad tracks in Cimarron, Kan., in March 2016 has admitted fault and avoided a trial on the matter.
This aerial view provided by the Kansas Highway Patrol in March 2016 shows derailed cars from the Southwest Chief.
Amtrak’s Southwest Chief derailed on those same tracks about 15 hours later, and 28 people aboard the Los Angeles-to-Chicago train were hurt.
The Associated Press reported that Cimarron Crossing Feeders said in a court filing that an employee was negligent in not setting the truck’s brake, allowing it to roll.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined last November that the probable cause of the derailment was that driver’s failure to properly secure his unattended truck, which struck the BNSF railroad tracks and caused them to misalign.
NTSB also ruled the failure of the truck’s driver and his supervisor to report the incident to local authorities was a contributing cause in the accident.
During a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee hearing on the implementation of positive train control (PTC) among U.S. railroads Oct. 3, an Amtrak executive said that the carrier plans to continue operating the Southwest Chief passenger route through at least the 2019 fiscal year.
Amtrak Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Scot Naparstek told U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D) of New Mexico that the route, which various reports had said would get a 500-mile “bus bridge” from Dodge City, Kan., to Albuquerque, N.M., to avoid non-PTC trackage, would be operated as usual once the Dec. 31, 2018, PTC deadline passes.
“We plan on running the Southwest Chief as-is through fiscal year 2019. We are well aware of the Senate’s directive,” Naparstek said. “We await Congress’s dealing with the Southwest Chief during the (budget) conference as well as in the fiscal spending bill.”
The president of the Rail Passengers Association was pleased with the outcome.
“This is a huge win for our association, for passengers, and for the states that rely on the Southwest Chief,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “It shows that advocacy works, and I want to thank every person who took part in our campaign in defense of the national network. Now, we need to take that energy and turn it towards the coming reauthorization where we can make a positive vision for passenger rail in the U.S.: fast and frequent trains, 21st century equipment, and on-time service that passengers can count on.”
The Southwest Chief runs daily from Chicago to Los Angeles.
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Jerry Moran’s (R – Kan.) and Tom Udall’s (D – N.M.) amendment to maintain Amtrak train services along the established, long-distance passenger rail route of the Southwest Chief, #3665, was included in the 2018 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies appropriations bill that passed the Senate on a 92-6 vote. The amendment was cosponsored by U.S. Senators Pat Roberts (R – Kan.), Martin Heinrich (D – N.M.), Cory Gardner (R – Colo.) and Michael F. Bennet (D – Colo.), all senators who represent states through which the critical Southwest Chief route runs.
This amendment would provide resources for maintenance and safety improvements along the Southwest Chief route and would compel Amtrak to fulfill its promise of matching funding for the successful TIGER IX discretionary grant supported by the Kansas Department of Transportation and local communities along the route. In addition, this amendment would effectively reverse Amtrak’s decision to substitute rail service with bus service over large segments of the route through FY2019.
“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,” said Sen. Moran. “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.”
“For the second time in two weeks, the Senate is speaking out with strong, bipartisan support for long-distance rail, especially the Southwest Chief — and this time with $50 million in new funding,” said Sen. Udall. “Replacing rail service with bus service between Dodge City, Kansas and Albuquerque, New Mexico would not only have completely disrupted service for Amtrak passengers, it would have discouraged riders from taking the Southwest Chief in the first place, adding to Amtrak’s financial problems. The Southwest Chief route is an economic engine in New Mexico, giving passengers a ride through time — through the historic West — and connecting our communities. The additional funding from our amendment will make sure the Southwest Chief gets back on a sound financial track. I remain committed to working with our communities, Amtrak leadership, and other stakeholders to keep the Chief running long into the future.”
“I am pleased the Senate has approved our amendment to ensure continuous rail service on all long distance routes, especially the Southwest Chief,” said Sen. Roberts. “We heard from many Kansans strongly opposed to the proposed bus service within the route.”
“I’m excited to support an amendment that will greatly help the Southwest Chief’s continued presence in southeastern Colorado,” said Sen. Gardner. “The amendment secured by the bipartisan coalition in the appropriations bill will set aside funding for route improvements and enhancements, providing the opportunity to ensure the Southwest Chief stays in Colorado and continues servicing the rural areas that desperately need it.”
“The Southwest Chief is an important component of Southeastern Colorado’s tourism economy, and we will do all we can to preserve it,” said Sen. Bennet. “We’ll continue to work closely with lawmakers from Colorado—and also New Mexico and Kansas—to keep running the Southwest Chief through our state.”
“I’m proud to help lead this bipartisan coalition in the Senate to save the Southwest Chief, and I hope that my colleagues in the House of Representatives agree that fighting for infrastructure in rural America is good for our economy as a whole,” said Sen. Heinrich. “Each year, the Southwest Chief brings thousands of Boy Scouts from around the country to New Mexico’s Philmont Boy Scout Ranch and generates economic activity in our communities like Raton, Las Vegas, and Lamy. It makes no sense for Amtrak to provide inferior service while cutting out a key part of rural America. We’re going to continue fighting any effort to undermine this important route.”
The Southwest Chief runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles and connects towns and cities in Kansas, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California and provides passenger train and long-distance passenger service, particularly through rural communities. The Southwest Chief stops in several Kansas communities including Lawrence, Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City.
Items to Note:
Last week, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a Sense of the Congress measure to affirm support for the long-distance rail service.
Last month, the senators sent a letter to Amtrak’s CEO urging him to uphold Amtrak’s side of a longstanding public-private partnership to continue operating the Southwest Chief passenger train and long-distance passenger service.
Colorado’s Senate Transportation Committee will consider the bill to save the Amtrak Southwest Chief rail line at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
The passenger rail route, which runs through. Southeastern Colorado, has been targeted by Amtrak for possible elimination in 2015 if funding for track improvements and maintenance are not found.
House Bill 1161, sponsored by state Rep. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, has already been approved. The bill creates a commission to oversee rail maintenance efforts in Colorado, and to cooperate with Kansas and New Mexico, Amtrak and the BNSF Railway for their share of ongoing funding. Now it’s time for the Senate to take swift action on the measure.