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Southwest Chief rail line: A ‘canary in the coal mine’?

Just a few months ago, things were looking up for Amtrak service through northern New Mexico as part of the historic Southwest Chief line between Chicago and Los Angeles.

In March, New Mexico’s congressional delegation touted a $16 million federal Department of Transportation grant to support the passenger rail line.

The money would go through Colfax County to pay for improvements, including replacement of old ties for 200 miles of rail between Lamy and Trinidad, Colo., and other critical repairs on the Southwest Chief route.

The official announcement came with celebratory quotes from New Mexico’s U.S. senators and representatives about preserving passenger rail service. “This critical grant will fund badly-needed improvements to ensure a strong and stable future for the Southwest Chief in New Mexico,” said Sen. Tom Udall at the time.

But things have changed.

Amtrak leaders, in recent meeting with members of Congress from New Mexico and other affected states, made it clear that the public rail agency wants to shut down the Chief between Dodge City, Kan., and Albuquerque, and replace the train service over that section with a chartered bus service.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief pulls into Lamy on Monday as a passenger waits. Amtrak stops at Lamy, Las Vegas and Raton in New Mexico would soon end under an Amtrak plan. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Trains would no longer make New Mexico stops at Lamy, southeast of Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Raton. Trinidad, La Junta and Lamar in Colorado, and Garden City, Kan., also would lose their passenger trains.

Amtrak is under the gun to meet rail safety standards by the end of the year and says the “financial investment of the magnitude needed to retain this portion of the route is not prudent.”

The implementation of Positive Train Controls, a system that can stop a train not under an engineer’s control, was mandated by Congress.

Previous deadlines have been pushed back, but the Trump administration has said it intends to enforce the current mandate. Preliminary estimates show at least $55 million is required to complete system installation on the route.

At the recent meeting hosted by U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, lawmakers asked Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson to stand behind agreements Amtrak previously made to upgrade and maintain its route through the south-central U.S.

“I was very disappointed in the nature of the meeting and the lack of commitment on the part of Amtrak to keep its word and contribute the $3 million match toward this TIGER (Transportation Investment Generation Economic Recovery) grant application,” Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas said, referring to a federal grant awarded last year to upgrade hundreds of miles of rail primarily in Colfax County, where Raton is the county seat.

The 2017 TIGER grant is the third one to be awarded to communities along the Southwest Chief route to upgrade the line, starting with a $12.4 million grant to Garden City in Kansas in 2014 and a $15.2 million grant a year later to La Junta, Colo.

The members of Congress sent a letter to Amtrak expressing “deep concern” about the situation.

Heinrich released a statement that said, “The Southwest Chief is vital to the economic well-being of our communities. In many cases, the line is the only affordable alternative transportation option to the highways for our citizens, and is an important link to public and private services in larger cities along the route for rural residents, including the elderly and disabled.”

Conditions set last year

In a letter to Colfax County Commission Chairman Bill Sauble last October, Amtrak’s chief financial officer, William Feidt, said the railroad would provide a $3 million match toward the Southwest Chief Route Improvement Project under one condition.

“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,” Feidt wrote. The track used by Amtrak is owned by the BSNF Railway.

Amtrak’s westbound Southwest Chief cruises through northern New Mexico earlier this week. The train would stop running between Dodge City, Kan., and Albuquerque under an Amtrak plan. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Amtrak is the sole user of the BNSF track between Jansen, Colo., near Trinidad, and the junction with the Rail Runner Express commuter train’s rail line south of Santa Fe, and is entirely responsible for capital and maintenance costs for that stretch of track.

But Amtrak isn’t willing to pay the entire cost to keep the rail line up-to-date and serviceable.

“It is Amtrak’s expectation that, prior to the obligation of grant funds for this project, the County of Colfax, New Mexico, BNSF and Amtrak will enter into appropriate agreements setting forth our roles and responsibilities with respect to the project, with terms acceptable to Amtrak.”

Amtrak also expects Colfax County, or someone, to pay $3 million annually to pay for operational costs, which Colfax County Manager Mary Lou Kern has said her rural county can’t afford. Tourism, much of it associated with the nearby Philmont Scout Ranch and boosted by the Raton Amtrak stop, is the county’s biggest industry.

The $16 million federal DOT grant for rail improvements announced by New Mexico’s congressional delegation in March is the federal government’s contribution to what altogether is a $25 million grant, Kern said.

BNSF and Colfax County’s share of the matching grant is $3 million apiece. The departments of transportation in Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico would each chip in $1 million, and Burlington Northern would contribute $3 million, as would Amtrak. But that’s the $3 million Amtrak is threatening to pull back.

A spokeswoman with Gov. Susana Martinez office said the state became aware of Amtrak’s demands only in May.

Amtrak has not directly asked the state to pay for the track improvements. But the Martinez spokesman said Amtrak’s conditional support for the grant jeopardizes millions of dollars that have already been invested in the Southwest Chief in the three states that would be impacted.

Rail riders concerned

The National Association of Railroad Passengers is also concerned. A spokesman for the group that advocates for train and rail transit passengers said discontinuing the middle portion of the Southwest Chief route could be a “canary in the coal mine” for other routes.

“When Amtrak walks away, they walk away from a fairly significant amount provided by the TIGER grants,” said Sean Jeansgail, vice president of governmental affairs and policy for the NARP. “They have made commitments and they need to live up to them.”

Passenger Rail Kansas President Evan Stair believes Amtrak intends to implement the bus service after the safety system installation deadline.

“The effect of this would be damaging, not only to those cities that would lose rail service, but to all Southwest Chief cities,” Stair said. “Understand ridership drops substantially … with every transfer. So we are really discussing long-term the discontinuance of service.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.