Amtrak service reductions in place

Chad Frey
The Southwest Chief is now making fewer stops in Newton, dropping from seven days a week to three.

There are a couple of milestones at Amtrak this month — milestones that some are not happy about.

For the first time in nearly 150 years, there is not a daily passenger train stopping in Newton — and the same can be said for dozens of communities across multiple states served by the Southwest Chief. And, this month, for the first time in nearly 150 years, there has been a day without a passenger train departure from Chicago headed to Los Angeles. Two trains, the California Zepyr and the Southwest Chief, make that trip.

Both of those trains, along with nearly every long-distance train operated by Amtrak, have been cut to three-day-a-week service.

It is a move that William Flynn, president and CEO of Amtrak, was forced to defend in September during a hearing by the U.S. House subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. And he was questioned again this week by U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

“The levels of ridership have fallen off so dramatically, that running a daily service right now without some level of assistance or supplemental funding will essentially reduce the company to a very precarious state,” Flynn said Oct. 21. “... It is the management challenge that we have to make.”

About $1 billion was received from the CARES Act to avoid furloughs, but Amtrak started a new fiscal year Oct. 1. Amtrak requested an additional $4.9 billion for the next fiscal year, but that funding has not been approved. It is contained in HR 2, which has not been voted on in the U.S. Senate.

In addition to days of service cuts this month, Amtrak has begun furlough of about 2,000 employees, including 700 on-board service workers represented by the Transport Workers Union of America. In Kansas, the Southwest Chief uses train and engine crews based in La Junta and in Kansas City. They are members of the BLET (engineers) and SMART (conductors). Amtrak employment in Kansas is about a dozen employees overall.

Moran asked, quite pointedly, about the priority, obligation and requirement of Amtrak to operate a national network and long distance trains.

“Your indication is that (Amtrak’s) obligation is so real that should passenger ridership continue to be this dire, Amtrak would continue to take additional steps to keep passenger rail service long-distance running,” Moran said.

This summer, the railroad issued a white paper containing a matrix the railroad to use in evaluating a return to seven-day-a-week service for long-distance trains. That matrix was met by skepticism from rail advocates.

Moran also expressed skepticism. Two years ago, he and a bipartisan group of legislators dealt with Amtrak making an attempt to truncate the Southwest Chief and install a “bus bridge” through parts of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

“I would indicate to Mr. Flynn that part of the skepticism that occurs with me and maybe my colleagues, is that previous CEOs of Amtrak were less committed to long distance passenger service, and that’s not that long ago,” Moran said. “So, when the three-day (service) arrives, it raises concerns that this is another circumstance in which we are being played, that this is the continued effort to eliminate or significantly diminish the service.”

Newton has long been the busiest passenger rail station in the state of Kansas, and in 2016 that was bolstered by the creation of a bus service connecting Newton to Oklahoma City — a connection between the Southwest Chief and The Heartland Flyer, which serves Oklahoma and Texas.

The Southwest Chief serves Lawrence, Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City in Kansas. Of those stations, only Newton hosts an attendant.

Moran cited an economic study by the Rail Passengers Association that states the long-distance routes create an economic impact of $4.8 billion to the communities served each year. The association also claims that long-distance trains were the strongest economic performer for Amtrak during the pandemic — long-distance train ridership has fallen 68% during the pandemic, compared to 90% in the Northeast Corridor.

“Today, during COVID, long distance makes up 45% of Amtrak’s revenues, compared to 21% a year ago,” Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, said in September. “(It) has contributed the largest share of Amtrak revenues every month since March. That could all change on Oct. 1 if Congress cannot act.”

Also reduced in the days of service are the California Zephyr, Capitol Limited, Coast Starlight, Crescent, Empire Building, Lake Shore Limited, Palmetto and Texas Eagle routes. The long-distance Autotrain is not affected.