Analysis: Amtrak, stakeholders clarify positions on 'Southwest Chief,' PTC

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BNSF’s Rich Wessler, left, and Amtrak’s Joe McHugh address stakeholders assembled on the first inspection train of the Chief route, west of Garden City, Kan., on Jan. 10, 2013.
Bob Johnston

LA JUNTA, Colo. — Following the Aug. 21 meeting between Amtrak officials and Southwest Chief stakeholders in Raton, N.M. — which provided the first detailed look at a proposed bus bridge to replace part of the Chief route — inquiries by Trains News Wire have resulted in a clearer picture of the current positions regarding positive train control in general and the route in particular. In terms of the need for PTC on the route, those views are clearly at odds.

Meanwhile, an official involved with another non-PTC route, the Downeaster, says that train is not in jeopardy despite the lack of the safety system.

The Chief situation is complex, and local advocates and Amtrak have developed their respective positions, because all parties consider the Southwest Chief route to be “unique.”

For Amtrak, this is because the train is the sole user of a significant portion of its route. This means it doesn’t get any help from host railroad BNSF in shouldering route costs, although the railroad has made a commitment to long-term maintenance.

The stakeholders’ view is included in a report from Colorado participants in the Raton meeting.  It observes, “the Amtrak board should make an exception to its PTC position due to the … reduced risk [of only one train each way] on the route [because] PTC doesn’t make sense from a safety or cost perspective.” Also, that report says, “the bus bridge option will increase risks faced by passengers [who are] six times more likely to be injured on a bus, and much of the route the bus must follow is on rural, two-lane highways.”

(The Colorado report was written prior to Thursday’s crash on Interstate 40 in New Mexico between a Greyhound bus and a semi-trailer truck that had suffered a blown tire. At least seven people have died in that crash.)

The stakeholders’ view

The Colorado summary of the meeting, as well as one by the Kansas contingent, reveals the group’s main goal was to discuss what was necessary for Amtrak to spend its pledged $3-million match to a federal Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery grant that would result in $25 million of improvements to tracks and signal systems. [See “Amtrak contribution to ‘Southwest Chief’ grant comes with conditions,” Trains News Wire, April 4, 2018.]

It is the third such grant, stemming from a 2012 suggestion by former Amtrak president Joe Boardman that communities and states on the Chief route contribute to its continued existence by applying for TIGER program grants. BNSF Railway agreed to not only also contribute financially but promised to maintain the route at its own expense for 20 years. This broad-based support resulted in Garden City, Kan.; La Junta, Colo.; and most recently, Colfax County, N.M. (where Raton is located) winning bids totaling $71 million with matches. Since Boardman left, current management has insisted all costs should be paid and outlined in a five-year plan before any more work continues.

According to the Kansas stakeholders’ report issued Aug. 24, Amtrak Executive Vice President Stephen Gardner stated that “positive train control is their board policy regardless of exemptions granted by the Federal Railroad Administration. PTC costs are estimated at $53.3 million for the 483 miles between Dodge City, Kan., and Lamy Junction, New Mexico.” The Colorado report adds that Amtrak estimates the New Mexico portion of the route would require Amtrak to spend $3 million annually on maintenance and that PTC would cost $8.2 million per year to maintain.

The Kansas recap says Garden City Assistant City Manager Steve Cottrell asked Amtrak to enumerate details of the additional $50 million of capital Amtrak says the route needs, “as similar rough estimates were thrown around seven years ago, only to be proven later to be half the amount once detail was provided.”

La Junta, Colo., City Manager Rick Klein tells Trains News Wire he urged Amtrak officials to “work on a plan with alternatives that don’t stop with the bus bridge. Gardner said, ‘Nothing is set in stone,’ so if Amtrak is not interested in eliminating this train, then prove it by working out a plan that will move TIGER 9 forward now.” He adds, “Once we get those improvements, the losses Amtrak talks about will be less.”    

The eastbound Southwest Chief flies past RailRunner Express' Kewa, N.M., station on Aug. 14, 2014. PTC for the RailRunner system should address Amtrak concerns on part of the Chief's route.
Bob Johnston

Amtrak’s position

Meanwhile, clarifications by Amtrak corporate communications personnel emailed to Trains News Wire say, “Our board has said it wants PTC or a PTC equivalent level of safety across our network. That is our policy. We understand this will take time to achieve but it is our goal.”

Adding that the company continues to work with stakeholders “to find a sustainable path to address the challenges of this route,” the statement says Amtrak expects to have all risk assessments for the route completed by November, and by Dec. 31, “we will need to have any necessary risk mitigation strategies in place for continued operation of the route prior to achieving PTC or PTC-equivalency over the segment.”

As to why the company is not providing the $3 million TIGER grant match at this time, the statement notes, “While the TIGER funds would address some of the basic infrastructure needs of the route, (they) would not address the anticipated costs of PTC or the significant costs still facing Amtrak for the sole-use portion of the route between Jansen, Colo., and Lamy, N.M. It is these costs that Amtrak is seeking a long-term plan to address.”   

Observing that “New Mexico’s [RailRunner between Albuquerque and Lamy] is likely to be among several host railroads that will qualify for an alternative implementation schedule where we can continue to lawfully operate after Dec. 31, 2018, pending FRA approval,” the statement says, “There appears to be a way forward to realize substantial safety benefits of PTC on that portion of the Southwest Chief route.” It notes, however, that the segment east of Lamy “still does not have a PTC implementation plan, and it is the cost to install PTC on these other portions that is reflected in the Amtrak estimate.” The FRA says this segment is exempt from the PTC requirement because it meets the agency’s criteria for light-traffic routes.

An eastbound Downeaster, with cab car trailing, departs Freeport, Maine, on Sept. 24, 2016. An official who oversees the Downeaster says the train is not in jeopardy despite a lack of PTC on part of its route.
Bob Johnston

‘Downeaster’ not jeopardized

The original Trains News Wire report about the Raton meeting [“Amtrak says it will not run trains on routes without PTC,” Trains News Wire, Aug. 27, 2018] indicated at least seven other trains were at risk because of the board’s PTC mandate — reporting that reflects information from individuals at the meeting, but that Amtrak has characterized as “inaccurate.” The official overseeing one of those routes has since indicated it is not in jeopardy.

In response to the News Wire report, the Bangor Daily News quoted Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority Executive Director Patricia Quinn saying, “Amtrak has gone through a review of all lines, even those not required to have [positive train control] and conducted safety assessments and there are no risks associated with the Downeaster line. The route is not in jeopardy at all.” (Quinn is now on vacation and could not be reached by Trains News Wire for comment.) The authority holds a 20-year agreement with Amtrak to operate the Downeaster and manages the budget, contracts, promotion and customer services for the train.

Pan Am Railways’ portion of the Downeaster north of MBTA territory at Haverhill, Mass., hosts 12 passenger trains per day and is protected with automatic block signals. The Chief’s route has an additionally overlaid safety system, Automatic Train Stop, which triggers a locomotive brake application and power drop if the engineer does not acknowledge restrictive signal indications. Although ATS non-compliance triggers a brake application and the existing signal system used on the Downeaster and other routes does not, neither system actively enforces speed restrictions around curves or through work zones in the manner that positive train control is designed to work.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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