Amtrak Plans to Kill SW Chief with Bustitution

From: George Chilson

The following just in: Amtrak’s PowerPoint pitch to the Congressional delegation from KS, CO and NM. Not pretty and reflects Amtrak’s lack of comprehension of the impact their proposed bustitution between Albuquerque and either La Junta (336 highway miles and 5:40 driving time) or Dodge City (512 highway miles and 8:25 driving time).

Also attached:

  • Matt Fels calculation of what would happen to revenue and volume if Amtrak only ran Chief only between Chicago-Kansas City and Albuquerque-LAX. I’m going to ask him to revise to include Dodge City or La Junta as possible end points so we’ll know how much revenue Amtrak puts in jeopardy because of its proposed bustitution.
  • Matt Fels graphic representation of passenger volumes between O&D for all LD trains. Format may be a bit difficult to understand at first but it shows volume (not revenue) for passengers traveling between end points; those traveling between one end point and an intermediate end point and those traveling between intermediate stations.

Additional points in rejoinder to Amtrak’s presentation:

  • “Loss” is a pejorative term that implies the goal is profit rather than what it is: “essential, fundamental, basic and often the only mobility choice.” Amtrak ranks the Chief as #14 (out of 15 routes) in terms of total “loss” of $56 M in FY 17.
  • Amtrak uses the red herring “Loss per rider” metric in a deliberate attempt to mislead, ranking the Chief as #13. This metric devalues people who take longer trips. Federal cost per passenger mile is a more neutral and accurate term. At 17.3 cents, the Chief ranks #5 out of 15. If Amtrak were honest, it would report total taxpayer cost instead of including state payments as revenue. By this statistic the Chief would rank #26 out of 49. Not bad for what Amtrak is trying to portray as a “loser.”
  • Amtrak also ignores an obvious fact (that they should know): that approximately $23 million of the $56 million it claims the Chief “loses” each year represent costs that are either fixed or shared with other routes that would not cease with the Chiefs elimination but be reallocated to other routes.

We’re in a fight to save the national system. Amtrak needs to relearn the lesson that its plan to kill the national network one route at a time will cause far more pain than it is worth.



Further comment 6/23/18:

This article is based on an Amtrak Power Point slide show presented to the Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico Congressional delegations. It showed Amtrak’s plan to replace through Chicago-Albuquerque-Los Angeles SOUTHWEST CHIEF train service with a stub train from Chicago to either Dodge City, KS or La Junta, CO; then a bus for up to 550 miles from Dodge City to Albuquerque; finally connecting to another stub train from Albuquerque to Los Angeles. As noted below the bus ride will probably mean sitting up overnight!

We have been lied to by Amtrak, which only last month promised the Rail Passengers Association (NARP) that it had no plans to cut any national network services. I am an RPA Vice Chair, although these views are my own. We have been played for suckers by the Anderson Amtrak management. But more importantly they’ve done the same to all their supporters in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, indeed throughout the West.

This is the test case for trying Amtrak in trying to create a kind of “Balkan Track”–a train here and train there–but all services isolated and of only local use. Since the Amtrak law requires full state support of all routes under 750 milers, it’s easy to understand that such a disconnected network will never survive. Even the Northeast Corridor would wither if Amtrak served only the east coast, a few local lines in the Midwest and California, Oregon and Washington. Such a “network” would serve less than half the states and would never win a funding vote in Congress.

And assurances for the continuation of trains like the EMPIRE BUILDER and the CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR can no longer be taken as true either. If the SOUTHWEST CHIEF has to go because of largely PTC (Positive Train Control) exempt track, the others will follow, as they all have this problem on at least a few route segments. Already reliable sources confirm that Amtrak has asked the Union Pacific for costs to reroute the CZ thru Wyoming west of Denver. This would eliminate the stunning crossing of the Colorado Rockies by day, which is the great draw of the route. Yet this reroute bypasses tracks that are legally PTC exempt, which means Amtrak is not prohibited from running there. This is the situation on the great majority of the SW CHIEF line as well.

The former Santa Fe RR mainline used by the SW CHIEF is already fully equipped with a superb “heritage” safety system, automatic train stop. Already this pre-World War II system will stop any train that passes a block signal in violation of a green light, or exceeds the speed limit. PTC is not required under Federal law over lines with fewer than six passenger trains per day and less than 50,000,000 tons of freight per year. This perfectly defines the SW CHIEF line. The Raton Pass route is legally PTC exempt except in the Rail Runner district, yet Amtrak is falsely blaming the absence of PTC for removing 550 miles of service from Dodge City to Albuquerque. The Rail Runner is moving to complete PTC and should get an extension to 2020, yet Amtrak disingenuously uses this as an excuse to end service!

The incredibly long SW CHIEF bus bridge will obviously not work and Amtrak knows that very well. If they run the stub trains on a daylight schedule, as they suggest in the slides shown to the Congressional delegation, then the bus bridge would be an overnight trip! And this is very likely, as they could then can diner and sleeper service on the line if the trains ran only by day/evening.

And the day trains would effectively connect to nothing. To get from Los Angeles to Albuquerque by day means leaving Los Angeles at six to seven AM at the latest, before any connections could arrive. Westbound arrivals would be after ten at night. The same would happen to a purported day train from Chicago to either Dodge City or La Junta. Indeed to La Junta all by day/evening from Chicago is impossible.

And why these points, rather than Lamy, if PTC is the issue? At most the bus bridge would only be needed from Lamy to Albuquerque if the Rail Runner’s extension is denied. Why does Amtrak want to subject its passengers to over eight hours on a bus when it could be only an hour? And Albuquerque itself falls in the “PTC not ready” zone, which actually extends from the junction with the new Santa Fe Rail Runner line, just west of Lamy to Isleta, New Mexico, well west of Albuquerque. If they can get into Albuquerque from Los Angeles why not from Lamy?

We need to go beyond mere opposition to calling out the dishonesty underlying Amtrak’s double cross on the Tiger Grant, their misrepresentations to their users of their plans and the impossibility of the so-called substitute plan of working as purported.

A real truth is in the last slide in the Amtrak Congressional presentation. This is really an attempt to cost shift. Amtrak claims to favor new trains in Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma in lieu of the SW CHIEF. But it knows perfectly well these trains will never run.

Services like the suggested “Front Range Corridor” from Cheyenne to Pueblo Corridor would require 100% state support, as would a new Chicago to KC mini Corridor. More improbably these new services would require multi-state compacts. This simply will not happen. Just yesterday the long planned New Orleans-Mobile service restoration collapsed when Mississippi and Alabama refused to contribute to the costs. Amtrak knows this, but as throughout this process fails to mention that in its disgraceful slide show on its plans to “restructure” the SW CHIEF and transfer as much as possible of its costs to the states.

If the SWC dies it will not be replaced, rather neglect of maintenance La Junta to ABQ will guarantee it won’t return even after the Rail Runner gets its PTC going. I applaud the opposition by the Congressional members in both houses and on both sides of the aisle. If Amtrak pulls this off it will die, as it will never win a national appropriation without a national network. This can not be allowed to happen. The SW CHIEF is the 5th most heavily used train in the United States. This travesty of a plan will devastate ridership, as Amtrak very well knows.

–Carl Fowler

Leave a Reply