If money to upgrade and maintain Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route through Kansas isn’t promised by 2014, the passenger rail service will start the process of moving the route out of the state by 2016, Amtrak officials told a group of legislative and transportation officials.
The poor condition of the track between Hutchinson and Garden City forces Amtrak to slow down its passenger trains, which go through western Kansas on a daily route between Chicago and Los Angeles. The track is owned by BNSF Railway, which maintains the lines just enough to allow its freight trains to go 30 to 40 mph. BNSF’s investment in maintenance has dropped in recent years as freight traffic has declined.
Officials estimate it will cost about $100 million to upgrade the track to allow Amtrak trains to return to desired speeds, plus up to $10 million per year for maintenance.
“The tracks are steel, but they’re 60 years old,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said during a meeting Thursday in Garden City. “They do wear out. Funding to maintain and improve track will be needed in coming years in order for the Southwest Chief to continue to serve the current route.”
The current agreement between Amtrak and BNSF ends in 2016, Magliari said, and Amtrak will then be required to pick up the full cost of maintaining the route.
“If we don’t know for certain, or have a great deal of confidence that a plan is being executed by 2014, it takes a period of time to move to another route,” Magliari said.
With legislative budgets for 2013 being set now, state commitments would need to be significantly in process by this time next year, said Lindsey Douglas, chief of governmental affairs with the Kansas Department of Transportation.
Representatives from Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico and numerous communities along the route attended the meeting and discussed how to meet the funding needs.
“I think what I picked up from the room is that everyone there is very interested in keeping the line on its current route,” Douglas said. “The communities in New Mexico and in southwest and central Kansas are interested in keeping it as it is.”
She said legislators from the three states met after the meeting to discuss raising money.
“It’s the first time any of us have seen a timeframe for decisions,” she said. “It did provide an urgency to the stakeholders, that we need to get this going.”
Hutchinson City Manager John Deardoff said he left the meeting believing Amtrak and Burlington Northern “are truly committed” to keeping the Southwest Chief route where it is “if we can figure out a way among the states to allocate this one-time needed capital investment.”