Stakeholders set sights on finishing 'Southwest Chief' route improvements

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Joe Boardman and La Junta, Colo., City Manager Rick Klein pose during a Southwest Chief inspection trip on Aug. 4, 2016. Klein says Chief stakeholders are determined to finish the work to improve the train's route in memory of the late Amtrak CEO.
Bob Johnston

LA JUNTA, Colo. —Even as Amtrak withheld money related to a federal grant for improvements on the route of the Southwest Chief, engineering work for the project began. And in the wake of the death of former Amtrak president Joe Boardman, stakeholders are more determined than ever to obtain the funding needed to complete the route work, says La Junta, Colo., City Manager Rick Klein.

“Joe’s vision was to enlist our help and preserving the route, and that’s exactly what we did over the last eight years,” Klein says. “After this work is finished, there are another 27 miles of jointed rail left in western Kansas and Colorado, and we owe it to him to finish the job.”

Klein says the current improvements will create 29 miles of class 4 (79-mph) track for a net gain of 42 miles, including welded rail on curves BNSF Railway has already installed. The work includes tie replacement between Springer, N.M., and Las Vegas, N.M., addressing some signal system shortcomings, and rebuilding culverts in the Devils Throne area near Lamy, N.M., to mitigate damage from rock slides.

The engineering work advanced while Amtrak withheld its $3 million match to the $16 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant, Klein says, because “the language was in the appropriation, so we didn’t want to delay necessary preparations required before construction could begin.” He added, “We worked through the environmental process with the Federal Railroad Administration, BNSF Railway, Colfax County, N.M., and the three state [departments of transportation] while waiting for Amtrak’s decision.”     

The impasse over the funds, which will lead to a total of $26 million in route improvements, was resolved last month when language in the federal budget compelled Amtrak to spend $50 million on the route. [See “Amtrak to post matching grant funds for Southwest Chief,” Trains News Wire, Feb. 27, 2019.]

The focus now will be getting a city sponsor and lining up more matching funds for a Consolidated Rail Infrastructure Safety and Improvement (CRISI) or a BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grant in the next budget cycle. Klein is talking with city officials from communities such as Dodge City and Garden City in Kansas, and Lamar, Colo.

Although the BUILD grant requires a 20 percent match, it has a large rural component. La Junta, Garden City, and Colfax County, N.M., won the three previous TIGER grants, in part, because of unified stakeholder support.

Coupled with the $9 million federal CRISI grant for positive train control installation between Dodge City, Kan., and Las Animas, Colo., just east of La Junta, Klein says, “The combined grants and matches have already generated more than $100 million for Southwest Chief route improvements. We’re not about to stop now.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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