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Amtrak route in jeopardy in NM, other states

SANTA FE – New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas communities face the potential loss of passenger rail service if Amtrak fails to reach a new agreement by 2016 for maintaining and upgrading portions of the Southwest Chief route through those states, the rail operator said Tuesday.

Ray Lang, Amtrak’s state government relations chief, proposed to a New Mexico legislative committee that Amtrak split the costs of maintenance and capital improvements for more than 600 miles of track with the states and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which owns the line but uses only a portion of it for hauling freight.

He asked lawmakers to consider a cost-sharing arrangement in which each of the states would spend about $4 million annually for a decade to keep Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line on its current route. He suggested that Amtrak and BNSF could cover similar amounts, about $40 million over 10 years, but he acknowledged that BNSF has made no commitment.

“I still think the five-way split is … the best solution here for the public. We would love to find a way to keep the train on its route,” Lang told the Legislature’s Transportation Infrastructure Revenue Subcommittee.

Lang said Amtrak had approached transportation officials in each of the states months ago, and they encouraged the rail operator to seek federal money.

Joe Faust, a BNSF spokesman, said the company hasn’t received a formal request from Amtrak for a cost-sharing deal but is aware of what has been suggested to the states. He said BNSF has made no decision on whether such an arrangement is feasible.

Amtrak’s operating agreement with BNSF expires in January 2016. Lang said BNSF doesn’t want to upgrade sections of the track used by its slower-moving freight trains to meet the higher speed requirements for Amtrak’s passenger trains. Amtrak can’t afford to foot the full cost itself, and it’s unlikely Congress will provide the extra money, he said.

The Southwest Chief route travels between Chicago and Los Angeles, but the portion of the route that’s jeopardized runs from the central Kansas community of Newton to Albuquerque.

If no track maintenance deal is reached, Lang said, Amtrak will have to consider changing the Southwest Chief to a more southern route using another BNSF line – going through Wichita in Kansas through Amarillo in Texas and then to Belen in New Mexico. It’s possible that Amtrak could continue serving Albuquerque, he said, but Raton, Las Vegas and Lamy, which is near Santa Fe, would lose service.

Amtrak would no longer serve Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City in Kansas, and Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad in Colorado if the Southwest Chief route is changed.

In New Mexico, there’s an estimated $29 million annual economic impact from spending related to train passengers, according to a study prepared by a Texas consulting firm for train supporters. That includes indirect spending and jobs at area businesses, such as restaurants and other shops.

About 129,000 passengers boarded or got off the Southwest Chief in New Mexico in 2012.