Splitting up the Chief could cost more than it would save

June 28, 2018
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Several months ago we wrote about prognostications of a bad future for Amtrak’s long-distance trains. Now there are new signs that some of these fears may be coming true.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief follows the route of the historic Santa Fe wagon trail through the Raton Pass, near the Colorado-New Mexico Border. The railroad through the pass has been there since the late 19th century, and it was once an important transcontinental link. Because of steep grades and sharp curves, heavy freight trains avoid the Raton Pass, making the Southwest Chief the only regular train over the rails. (The photo is from the nearby Raton, NM station, where masses of Boy Scouts rely on the trian.)

Over the past few years, a coalition of state and local officials worked tirelessly to put together the funding necessary for BNSF, the owner of the Raton route, to maintain the tracks for the Chief. Thanks to a combination of two TIGER grants and matching funds from Amtrak, BNSF and local governments, the route has received $46 million of investment in upgraded track and signals.

A third TIGER grant and matching funds would supply an additional $25 million, but a sudden reversal by new Amtrak management, led by CEO Richard Anderson, threatens to derail this long-fought effort. Amtrak is reneging on its agreement to contribute $3 million in matching funds, and is instead proposing to replace train service over the route with a bus. This would effectively split the Southwest Chief into three parts: one train from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, one from Chicago to the Kansas-Colorado border, and bus in between.

Splitting up the Chief could cost more than it would save. It would certainly reduce both ridership and revenue, especially by driving away high-dollar sleeping car passengers. Amtrak’s own numbers indicate that 20% of the train’s riders are going all the way from eastern portion of the route to the western one, or vice-versa. (Our last blog on this topic describes how this one train route serves 528 city pairs, as many as an entire airline network.)

Amtrak management seems to be focusing so much on serving short corridors that they’ve blinded themselves to the bigger picture. They must create new service in addition to the existing national network, not instead of it. Amtrak must strengthen its nationwide web, make it more extensive and robust, not cut holes in it. Removing a portion of the Southwest Chief will not only hurt ridership and revenue on that route, but also on other points in the network it touches.

What’s worse, abandoning this stretch of track would seriously endanger efforts already underway to create new service. One planned service, Colorado’s Front Range, would run through the growing Denver megaregion. Beyond offering a local alternative to congestion on I-25, it would create a new connection in the national network between the Chief and the California Zephyr to the north. This route already has the support of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, but it would need to use some of the same tracks the Chief does. Abandoning those tracks could effectively kill this effort.

Splitting the Chief would also reduce the effectiveness of a planned northern extension of Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer, which would create a link from northern Texas (and the Texas Eagle train) through Oklahoma to Kansas and the Southwest Chief.

As we said last time, Amtrak can’t cut its way to success. They need to be creating new opportunities for people to take the train, adding new nodes to the network and strengthening existing ones. They can’t do that at the expense of existing service. Carving up the Southwest Chief could put it into the classic “death spiral” of declining revenue and service until it ceases to exist. We hope that isn’t Amtrak’s intent.

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