Taking it to the tracks: Train officials travel the Chief, stumping for public's support.

7/11/2014

By ANGIE HAFLICH

By ANGIE HAFLICH

ahaflich@gctelegram.com

There's a glimmer of hope for the fate of Amtrak's Southwest Chief line.

On Friday, officials from BNSF Railway, Amtrak and the state department of transportation hopped aboard the train to take a trip across the state, where tracks in need of repair, particularly in south central and southwest Kansas, have threatened the existence of the line.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Chairman and CEO Matt Rose, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman and Kansas Secretary of Transportation Mike King, boarded the Southwest Chief early Friday morning, making stops in Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City, prior to making their way to Colorado and New Mexico.

"The discussion has been great. Us, BNSF and Amtrak were already pretty much committed to this. We've learned a few new things, but we've learned how we can partner together better," King said.

Rose unboarded the train in Dodge City, so was unavailable for comment, but both King and Boardman spoke briefly during their stop at the Amtrak station in Garden City.

"We're optimistic that we're going to get a TIGER grant that's going to provide an ability to maintain the railroad, not subsidize Amtrak, but maintain the railroad at a speed that makes sense for Amtrak to operate," Boardman said.

The Southwest Chief runs through Garden City on its route from Los Angeles to Chicago and because of poor track condition in not only Kansas, but also in southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico, the passenger train must travel at lower speeds in some areas.

BNSF owns the track, but maintains the rail only to what is necessary for 30- to 40-mph freight traffic to travel on it. Under a contract between BNSF and Amtrak, which expires in 2015, Amtrak must fund maintenance and improvements for higher speeds.

"We were told by BNSF here a couple of years ago that they thought they were going to abandon this particular stretch of railroad in terms of keeping up at a speed for Amtrak that makes sense. What I mean by that is, we operate generally at about 80 mph, and they were going to let it degrade to maybe 40 mph, maybe less — it would be over a period of time," Boardman said.

Amtrak officials at that time told BNSF officials they did not want to divert the Southwest Chief to BNSF's Transcon route, which runs south of Newton and on through the Texas Panhandle toward New Mexico.

"We wanted to continue to go west after Newton and operate right through Raton Pass and right on down to Albuquerque. We didn't want to leave out Garden City, we didn't want to leave out Dodge City, we didn't want to leave out Trinidad or La Junta or Raton," Boardman said.

Amtrak has until 2015 to find a solution to maintenance problems between Newton and Lamy, N.M, about 650 miles of track. The full cost of maintaining the route is estimated at about $10 million per year and $100 million in long-term improvement needs. Officials with Amtrak and BNSF have asked Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico to commit a combined $100 million over the next decade to improve the tracks.

There has been little indication so far that any of the states would provide funding, so Garden City and three other Kansas communities are seeking a federal grant as part of a coalition that includes Colorado communities and private organizations with a stake in repairing portions of the Southwest Chief to keep the service operating along its current route.

The coalition, which includes BNSF, Amtrak and KDOT, has pledged $9.3 million in matching funds toward the federal grant to keep the Chief running through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

"And that's all for track improvements. I think it's important to remember that we're not helping to subsidize Amtrak, we're not helping to subsidize the ticket price. This is for track improvements," King said.

After being denied a TIGER (Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery) grant in 2013, which would have supported replacement of the bolted rail with welded rail on BNSF track between Hutchinson and La Junta, Colo., Garden City hired the Seneca Group, grant writers based in Washington, D.C., to write the grant application this time around.

King feels the grant has a better chance this time, due to the fact KDOT, BNSF and Amtrak have committed to providing matching funds.

"It's a pretty good return on (the state's) money for $3 million for a $24 million return," King said. "And that's all for track improvements."

He said improving the tracks is important not only for the passenger rail, but also for freight movement.

"The reason why I think this is so important and such a good win for Kansas, should we be successful in this, is the freight movement. We have more freight movement than we do Amtrak, so any time we can improve a track anywhere in the state of Kansas, we're going to do it. It just happens to be that we're lucky in that we have Amtrak on it, so we can get two birds here with this," King said.

When asked what would happen to the state funding should the grant request be denied, King said, "We're not looking at a plan B. We're very optimistic."

He said having top executives of BNSF and Amtrak onboard doesn't hurt the process.

"I think anytime you get the president of Amtrak and the chairman of BNSF to be on a line, I think that shows the commitment level they have. They're going to be able to help in Washington," King said. "We're working behind the scenes, too, to see what monies are available for the track improvement. And KDOT, we have our short line rail money, where we put $5 million a year into improving short line tracks. This is just in addition to that, so this is a class one track we can improve."

King anticipates they'll know around mid-August whether the grant application was approved.

One way citizens can help in the meantime is ride the train.

"It's a pleasant way to (travel), and, for a large number of our population who doesn't want to drive, can't drive, it's a safe way for them to get out and about too. I would encourage people to ride the train. That's the best thing that we can do to keep the Southwest Chief on this line, is just increase ridership," King said.

Boardman said keeping the Southwest Chief intact is important for smaller communities along the route, in terms of maintaining connectivity with the rest of the country and in terms of economic development.

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