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Senate passes amendment aimed to save the Southwest Chief

May not be out of the woods yet

by Mark Craddock and Carol Bridge

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed an appropriations bill last week aimed at ensuring the survival of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief rail service – at least for the coming fiscal year. But the embattled rail line between Los Angeles and Chicago may not be out of the woods yet.

On a 92-6 vote last Wednesday, senators passed an amended version of HR 6147, an appropriations bill which funds transportation through the 2019 fiscal year. The previous day, a bipartisan group of western senators added an amendment to the bill to provide an additional $50 million to maintain the Southwest Chief line and attempt to halt Amtrak’s proposal to substitute rail service with bus service over a large segment of the route – from Albuquerque, N.M. to Dodge City, Kan.

The amendment is the latest salvo in a standoff that moved from Raton, N.M. to Washington D.C. earlier this year, after Amtrak officials notified Colfax County Commissioners that TIGER grant funding would be withheld until the Southwest Chief stakeholders met certain conditions regarding repair and maintenance of the tracks.

The amendment specifically earmarks $50 million “for capital expenses related to safety improvements, maintenance, and the non-Federal match for discretionary Federal grant programs to enable continued passenger rail operations on long-distance routes.” And it specifically forbids Amtrack from “initiat(ing) discontinuance of, reduce the frequency of, suspend, or substantially alter the schedule or route of rail service on any portion of such route.”

It was sponsored by U.S. Senators Tom Udall (N.M.) and Jerry Moran (Kan.), and co-sponsored by Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.).

The appropriations bill, as amended, now sits on U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s desk awaiting House action.

“Senator Udall is urging the House to either adopt a similar amendment on the floor,” according to a statement released by Udall’s office Tuesday, “or accept the Senate amendment in conference before the final version of the bill heads to the president’s desk after passing both houses of Congress, and Senator Udall is optimistic that we can get this done.”

Former Amtrak CEO says public safety effectively being weaponized

with Dec 31 PTC deadline for New Mexico

But the amendment may not address one issue which seems the most likely to derail the Southwest Chief — Amtrak’s insistence on installation of a valuable safety feature, Positive Train Control (PTC), on about 58 miles of track between Lamy and Albuquerque, N.M. The track is owned by New Mexico and the Southwest Chief shares it with the Rail Runner Express. Amtrak has given New Mexico a hard deadline of Dec. 31 to complete the PTC installation, estimated to cost $55 million.

In a scathing op-ed in the industry publication “Railway Age,” former Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman said PTC is a great safety improvement, but mandating it under such a tight deadline is tantamount to “weaponizing” public safety as part of a broader behind-the-scenes push to attack Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

“Under a facade of ‘safety first,’ there are threats to discontinue Amtrak-operated passenger trains by Dec. 31, 2018, wherever Positive Train Control is not installed and operating,” he wrote. “That is neither acceptable nor responsible…” The senate amendment, however, refers to “long-distance routes on which Amtrak is the sole tenant of the host railroad and positive train control systems are not required by law (including regulations).”

This would seem to exclude the Albuquerque-to-Lamy portion of the Southwest Chief’s route, which is shared with Rail Runner Express and does apparently require installation of PTC by the end of the year.

A statement from Udall’s office Tuesday denies that the PTC issue will be a problem.

“Senator Udall and other senators worked with Amtrak, the Appropriations Committee, the Commerce Committee, and others,” the statement says, “to ensure that the amendment was written in such a way that it would fully protect the Southwest Chief.” Senators last week hailed the amendment as a strong victory for proponents of the Southwest Chief.

“I’m proud to help lead this bipartisan coalition in the Senate to save the Southwest Chief, and I hope that my colleagues in the House of Representatives agree that fighting for infrastructure in rural America is good for our economy as a whole,” said Heinrich. “Each year, the Southwest Chief brings thousands of Boy Scouts from around the country to New Mexico’s Philmont Scout Ranch and generates economic activity in our communities like Raton, Las Vegas, and Lamy. It makes no sense for Amtrak to provide inferior service while cutting out a key part of rural America. We’re going to continue fighting any effort to undermine this important route.”

“The Southwest Chief is critical to many Kansans’ livelihood – ending this route would be a disservice to the many Kansans who rely on this route every day,” said Moran. “I applaud the bipartisan efforts to keep the Southwest Chief operational for our rural communities and will continue working with Amtrak to make certain this route remains available for the Kansans who need it.” “The Southwest Chief is critical to many Kansans’ livelihood – ending this route would be a disservice to the many Kansans who rely on this route every day,” said Moran. “I applaud the bipartisan efforts to keep the Southwest Chief operational for our rural communities and will continue working with Amtrak to make certain this route remains available for the Kansans who need it.”

“The Southwest Chief is an important component of Southeastern Colorado’s tourism economy, and we will do all we can to preserve it,” Bennet said. “We’ll continue to work closely with lawmakers from Colorado—and also New Mexico and Kansas—to keep running the Southwest Chief through our state.” “I’m excited to support an amendment that will greatly help the Southwest Chief’s continued presence in Southeastern Colorado,” Gardner said. “The amendment secured by the bipartisan coalition in the appropriations bill will set aside funding for route improvements and enhancements, providing the opportunity to ensure the Southwest Chief stays in Colorado and continues servicing the rural areas that desperately need it.”

Members of Congress have been ratcheting up the pressure on Amtrak since May. On May 31, 11 Senators and members of the House signed a letter to Richard Anderson, president and CEO of the National Passenger Rail Corporation expressing their concern over plans to withhold its portion of the TIGER grant funding. Amtrak’s plan to initiate bus service to replace part of the rail service brought another Congressional letter July 26, signed by the Western senators who ultimately sponsored the amendment, as well as Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.

Last week, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a “Sense of Congress” resolution affirming its support for the long-distance rail service and opposition to the proposed bus service.

 

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