Barth Hague is losing hope. He is starting to believe that a decades long effort to preserve the Southwest Chief has been in vain, and that the death of the long distance train from Chicago to Los Angeles with a daily stop in Newton is just around the corner.
"I canceled a reservation I had because it appears I am not going to be able to use the train" Hague said.
He said friends and acquaintances have been asking him if they should do the same in the wake of an announcement this month that Amtrak plans to stub the train — ending the westward run at Dodge City and eastward run at Albeuque, New Mexico. In between, Amtrak plans to use charter buses. Amtrak spokesmen state that a final decision on the future of the Chief has not been made.
"I think if this service is stubbed I think ridership will decline dramatically," Hague said. "The history is in this kind of a situation ridership drops off by at least 50 percent. I think eventually the service will be eliminated. I can imagine a time where Newton would lose train service over this."
There are two issues — the first a section of BNSF track in Colorado and New Mexico maintained by the BNSF, upon which Amtrak is running the only trains. That leaves Amtrak with an estimated $3 million in required maintenance to be done each year. The second of those issues is a section of track in New Mexico owned by the RailRunner, a railroad commuter line in New Mexico, where positive train control has not been installed and likely will not be.
Amtrak has a demand for the section of track in Colorado and New Mexico — that states chip in for the annual maintenance.
"(Amtrack is wanting) the states of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico to figure out a way to contribute $3 million annually for track maintenance," Hague said. "BNSF is willing to maintain that track, but has said that they need a pledge of $3 million annually and Amtrak refuses to pay it. Amtrak has said 'that is not our job to maintain track,' although they do it all along the northeast corridor although they are not going to do that here."
If the states were to do that, Amtrak would honor a $3 million commitment to a recently awarded TIGER grant to do renovation in Colorado and New Mexico.
Amtrak has no solution for the Positive Train Control option. It is the responsibility of the host railroad to install PTC, which the RailRunner has not been able to do. In a discussion this week with city representatives, Amtrak confirmed without PTC installed that the Southwest Chief will be suspended between Dodge City and Albuquerque Jan. 1, 2019.
There could be waivers issued by federal regulators to allow for trains to operate without it; however, that waiver may not be in place by the deadline.
Amtrak has started cutting ticket agents along the Southwest Chief line. Hague said ridership has declined over fears of loss of service.
"If this happens, restoring this line between Albuquerque and Dodge City will be next to impossible. I doubt it will ever happen," Hague said.