Southwest Chief, others to see frequency cut

Chad Frey
Starting Oct. 12, the Southwest Chief will be making fewer stops in Newton -- dropping from seven days a week to three.

There is only one passenger rail train that serves the state of Kansas, a train that has seen multiple threats to its operation over the past decade — most of them funding fights over rail improvements and positive train control.

It appears that in 2020, COVID-19 has done what no other threat could do in the nearly 50 years of operation of the Southwest Chief — reduce the frequency of service.

According to a memo to staff from Amtrak and posted to social media, all but one long-distance train in the Amtrak network will be cut to three times a week in October.

Amtrak changed its booking system on Aug. 17 and issued an update to service on its website the same day.

According to members of the Facebook group Friends of the Southwest Chief, the railroad has been sending letters to passengers who had booked trips on days removed from the schedule.

The railroad also issued a “white paper” stating that the railroad will evaluate each route starting in January based on public health concerns, future demand and current ridership to try and restore service.

The Southwest Chief, which operates between Chicago and Los Angeles, operates seven days a week, stopping at more than 30 stations on the route.

“Before the pandemic, 4.6 million of our 32 million annual passengers traveled on Amtrak’s Long Distance routes,” Amtrak wrote in the white paper. “COVID-19 has changed a lot, at times causing our total ridership to drop by more than 95 percent from (fiscal year) 2019 levels.”

Amtrak reported an 81% reduction in long-distance demand for April and May.

“Our goal is that all Long Distance service will be restored by June 30, 2021, so long as our nation and our company are healthy, consistent with restoration metrics and sufficient funding assistance is provided by congress,” Amtrak wrote.

Speaking to the American Association of Private Railcar Owners, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who has spearheaded efforts to preserve the Southwest Chief in the past, issued a statement that he does not want to see COVID-19 be an excuse used to gut the long distance trains.

“I want to make certain that responding to the challenges financial and otherwise of COVID pandemic is not used as an excuse to now terminate or significantly reduce ... long-distance service on the Southwest Chief and other long distance routes,” Moran said.

After the reduction in service scheduled for Oct. 12, the Southwest Chief will leave Chicago on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. The train will leave Los Angeles on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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

Newton is the 10th busiest station on the route and the most-used passenger station in Kansas. In addition to the Southwest Chief train, Amtrak also operates a charter bus service to connect Newton to the Heartland Flyer route operating between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas.

Also facing a reduction 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.