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Study: Bisecting Southwest Chief rail service a costly plan

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A study commissioned by the Rail Passengers Association says that local economies along the route of the Amtrak’s Southwest Chief passenger train between Albuquerque and Dodge City, Kan., would be derailed by as much as $116.4 million annually if Amtrak were to substitute rail service between the two cities with charter buses.

According to the study titled “Bustituded: The Socioeconomic Impacts of Replacing Southwest Chief Service Over Raton Pass” conducted by researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi, New Mexico communities would suffer most with direct economic losses measured at $50 million, while those in Colorado would lose $49 million annually and Kansas communities would suffer a $17 million loss.

Direct spending are losses stemming from railway operating spending, fewer visitors to the communities along the route and higher travel costs for the roughly 130,000 people who are accustomed to using the train.

“The reduction in visitor spending alone tops $5 million,” the report says.

The Southwest Chief makes stops at Raton, Las Vegas, Lamy – which serves as the Santa Fe stop – Albuquerque and Gallup.

Under the bus route plan proposed by Amtrak last year, rail service would be split in two, with westbound travelers leaving Chicago disembarking in Dodge City and eastbound passengers from LA getting off in Albuquerque. Passengers would board buses to cover the 450-mile trip between the Duke City and Dodge City, then get on the train again to finish their trips.

In addition, “the permanent indirect losses from shifting to a bus bridge would take another $64 million out of the three states’ economies,” the study says.

Permanent indirect losses are increased costs associated with highway facilities, road maintenance and pollution. The study says that with permanent indirect losses of $26.6 million annually, Kansas would be slightly more affected by a bus bridge than New Mexico, which would suffer $26.3 million in annual losses. Colorado would lose nearly $11 million from indirect losses.

Altogether, the study found there would have been $180 million in annual losses: $76 million in New Mexico, $60 million in Colorado and $44 million in Kansas.

The study also says that 32 universities and 47 hospitals would be affected.

It adds that a bus bridge impacts impoverished communities the most and that, of the communities along the Southwest Chief’s route, those that would be served by the bus bridge have the lowest median income.

“Regular and frequent train service has proved to be an economic engine for communities large and small time and again,” Jim Mathres, president of the Rail Passengers Association, said in a news release. “This study illustrates not only the damage that would have come from Amtrak’s proposed ‘bus bridge’ for the Chief, but also the real ‘return on investment’ for robust rail funding in both urban and rural communities nationwide.”

According to the executive summary of the report, the Rail Passengers Association commissioned the study “to contribute to the debate of the bus-bridge proposal.”

Last year, Amtrak proposed connecting Albuquerque and Dodge City with buses, saying it wasn’t economically feasible to continue service along that section of the 2,265-mile route between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Facing deadlines to meet new rail safety standards, Amtrak said the “financial investment of the magnitude needed to retain this portion of the route is not prudent.”

Amtrak is congressionally mandated to implement Positive Train Controls, a system capable of stopping a train not under the engineer’s control using advanced technologies, across its entire rail network.

As the sole user of a 219-mile stretch of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad track between Jansen, Colo., near Trinidad, and the junction of the Rail Runner Express commuter train’s track south of Santa Fe, Amtrak is entirely responsible for the capital and maintenance costs of the track.

Under pressure from the congressional delegations of the three states affected – Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico – Amtrak Chief Operating Officer Scot Naparstek in October committed to running the Southwest Chief rail line “as is” through fiscal year 2019, which ends Sept. 30.

A spokesman for Amtrak said this week that company officials haven’t reviewed the study, which was released Monday.

Congressional efforts

New Mexico’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich have added amendments in support of the Southwest Chief to the fiscal year 2019 Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development appropriations bill that has passed both the Senate and the House.

One Udall-Heinrich amendment provides an additional $50 million in federal funding to help maintain Amtrak train services along the existing route of the Southwest Chief. The second emphasizes Congress’s support for Amtrak long-distance routes like the Chief. The overall bill includes adequate funding overall for Amtrak for fiscal 2019, according to a statement from Udall’s office.

“Unfortunately, these bipartisan measures have been caught up in the partial government shutdown and the bill has not yet been enacted. However, these measures have broad support in both parties, and Senator Udall is confident they will pass both chambers of Congress once again and be signed into law once there is an agreement to end this costly shutdown,” said the statement.

Asked if Amtrak would continue to run its rail service “as is” beyond Sept. 30, which is when fiscal 2019 ends, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said there were “too many moving parts” to determine that at this time.

“Congress hasn’t done anything about the budget yet,” he said. “In the meantime, we’ll keep talking to stakeholders.”

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