Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan) was excited and upbeat about the future of the Southwest Chief earlier this month. The federal government had awarded the third TIGER Grant in five years to help with improvements to the rails the long-distance train that stops in Newton uses as it crosses the western half of the country.
But then the bottom fell out of the effort — and not only had Amtrak pulled $3 million in matching funds for the grant, the CEO met with six senators on Capitol Hill to show plans of stubbing the train and replacing it with charter buses between Garden City and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“After that moment of excitement, Amtrak announced they would not keep their commitment,” Moran said. ”... What caught my attention was Amtrak intending to renege on their commitment to contribute $3 million for a track upgrade.”
It was that reason that senators from Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico wanted to meet with Amtrak leadership. The TIGER grant involved matching funds from states, cities, BNSF and Amtrak. The city of Newton committed $12,500 to each of the TIGER grants — including the one Amtrak just pulled out of.
“No one here is not doing what they said they would do except Amtrak,” Moran said.
At that meeting, rather than negotiate with the railroad about that $3 million, senators were told that as early as Dec. 31 the railroad would stub the train. Under that plan, the westbound train would stop in Garden City and the eastbound train in Albuquerque. The plan calls for the use of charter buses for passengers traveling between those cities.
“The meeting was unsatisfactory,” Moran said. “We had six senators — two Democrats from New Mexico, two Republicans from Kansas, and a Democrat and Republican from Colorado. This was a very bipartisan effort to find out where Amtrak was coming from. ... We wanted to make it clear that from our perspective that they needed to keep their commitment. Nothing came from the meeting that said they were willing to do that. The result we were looking for did not occur.”
Amtrak does not want to take on $3 million in annual maintenance on a section of track that no longer serves freight trains, making the passenger train the only user of the track. That portion of the track is owned by BNSF. Amtrak also does not want to deal with the installation of Positive Train Control on a section of track in New Mexico, owned by the Rail Runner — a train line owned by the New Mexico Department of Transportation. In the case of PTC, host railroads are responsible for installation.
Those issues, according to documents obtained by the Newton Kansan, would not be resolved by a TIGER grant.
Senators were told that Amtrak would give a formal analysis of what needs to happen with the Southwest Chief — in the shadow of a presentation of stubbing the train.
“I am absolutely opposed to Amtrak not putting its money in and if they would dismantle or alter the Southwest Chief, as their documents show they may intend to do,” Moran said. “It would be a violation of their responsibility to provide long-distance passenger train service in the United States — the purpose for which Amtrak was created.”
This is not a move Moran will support — and he is not sitting still.
Moran said he and other senators are trying to work with their staff and Amtrak staff on the next response. In the meantime, Moran has placed a hold on two nominations for new people on the Amtrak board.
Moran and Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) have also placed language in an appropriations bill to require consultation with affected communities before Amtrak can make any changes to “terms of service.”
“In my view that, based on the conversations and where Amtrak appears to be going, we need to significantly strengthen that in the appropriations bill to be certain that Amtrak cannot walk away from the Southwest Chief as those documents suggest they may,” Moran said.
Moran said the reason Amtrak exists is to provide long-distance rail service — despite statistics showing the vast majority of tickets sold on the system are for trips of 250 miles or less. Federal funding appropriated to Amtrak, Moran said, is for long distance service.
“All of this will affect riders to Kansas, and riders from Kansas,” Moran said. ”... This is the first time we have to go beyond supporting Amtrak financially. We have to get to the point that Amtrak keeps its word and that Amtrak comes up with the money they committed. The solution is not abandoning the New Mexico part of the track. It is working with the partners, again, to provide the resources necessary. You have a solid group of members of the U.S. Senate, and the House as well, who are committed to helping. I think we have an attitude at Amtrak that long-distance service that does not make money is something they have no interest in. That defeats the purpose of the creation of Amtrak.”