May 9, 2018
RE: Service on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief Route
Dear Chairwoman Fischer, Ranking Member Peters, Chairman Denham, and Ranking Member Capuano:
It has come to our attention that Amtrak’s office of Government Affairs has responded to Congressional inquiries about the status of service on the Southwest Chiefroute with a letter that misrepresents both the value and the cost of this service. Our association represents the passengers and communities that depend on this corridor, and so we feel compelled to provide a broader and more complete context to help members of Congress evaluate the proper next steps to preserve this important transportation service for residents in the 36 communities across 8 states that depend on the Southwest Chief.
[For reference, we’ve included a copy of the letter Amtrak sent regarding the chief at the foot of this email.]
President & CEO
Rail Passengers Association
CC: The Honorable John Thune
The Honorable Bill Nelson
The Honorable Bill Shuster
The Honorable Peter DeFazio
The Honorable Pat Roberts
The Honorable Jerry Moran
The Honorable Roger Marshall
The Honorable Lynn Jenkins
The Honorable Ron Estes
The Honorable Michael Bennet
The Honorable Cory Gardner
The Honorable Dianna Degette
The Honorable Jared Polis
The Honorable Scott Tipton
The Honorable Ken Buck
The Honorable Tom Udall
The Honorable Martin Heinrich
The Honorable Michelle Lujan Grisham
The Honorable Steve Pearce
The Honorable Ben Lujan
Message from Amtrak in response to Congressional inquiries regarding the status of the Southwest Chief:
The Southwest Chief is unique in that it is the only route operated by Amtrak on its entire National Network where there is a significant section of infrastructure owned by a host (BNSF) and that is solely used by Amtrak and no other railroads. This Amtrak-only portion of the route is between Jansen, CO and a location called “Madrid” (about 20 miles west of Lamy), NM. As a result, the full maintenance costs attributable to this section of rail fall to Amtrak. Amtrak’s maintenance costs on the solely-used sections total are approximately $3 million per year. Critical capital investments on the line require more than $50 million in the coming years.
Those costs do not include positive train control (PTC) installation and implementation costs, which would also be incurred, or solely reimbursed, by Amtrak, as we look to expand the application of this vital safety technology across our network. Given the broad investment needs of Amtrak’s National Network, these are costs that Amtrak cannot afford to pay.
In October 2017, Amtrak provided a letter to Colfax County Commission clearly explaining that it qualified its financial commitment to the latest TIGER application with the following:
Amtrak will offer a $3 million match towards the project costs if the grant application for the requested amount is successful. Before Amtrak will fulfill this contribution, a comprehensive financial plan and accompanying commitments by relevant states and BNSF for the remainder of the infrastructure investments and associated additional maintenance costs for this route in New Mexico must be completed. Amtrak is prepared to assist the states and BNSF in developing and completing such an agreement.
Amtrak is not prepared to address these substantial infrastructure needs for this segment of the Chief on piecemeal basis, particularly on a right of way that it does not own.
If the states and local communities desire to retain this segment for operation, there needs to be a comprehensive plan and commitments from other stakeholders and it must address the long term viability of the route, from Hutchinson, KS to Isleta, NM, in order to ensure the route’s performance doesn’t degrade. For example, BNSF has agreed to pay the ongoing maintenance costs for the Kansas and Colorado portions of the route once the improvements funded by TIGER were made.
To put this financial concern of Amtrak in context, of the 19 million riders on the National Network in FY 2017, the ridership of the Southwest Chief represented only 364,000, and it is steadily decreasing. In addition, the Chief produced more than $50 million per year in operating losses, a cost recovery of only 47.9% in FY17, and an operating subsidy of $148 per passenger. Further, the Chief ran an all-stations on-time performance of only 45.5% last year with trains that were almost 40% empty. These numbers do not reflect the type of service our customers, and your constituents, should expect.
Amtrak will keep you updated on our plans as we consider the future of this portion of the route and if the states, local municipalities and the freights put forward a comprehensive plan for the company to review.