Hutchinson Railroad officials have imposed slower speeds on Amtrak trains traveling through portions of western Kansas because of deteriorating track conditions.
The slowdown, which could become permanent, has added about 45 minutes to the run from La Junta, Colo., to Hutchinson.
Without a significant influx of spending on the line, the miles of slowdown are expected to increase with time.
Amtrak officials said they’re reviewing whether to issue new timetables on the route in advance of a normal schedule update set to occur in October.
While the slower speeds will affect those on shorter trips, at least one rail expert said that he didn’t expect the change to hurt ridership on the overall Southwest Chief route — which goes from Los Angeles to Chicago — because the delay can easily be made up along the route.
BNFS Railway, which owns the track and contracts with Amtrak for its use, imposed the reduced speeds on Aug. 20 following an inspection, said BNSF spokesman Andy Williams.
“Yes, we do have a slow order in place — 60 mph for passenger, 40 mph for freight,” Williams stated in an e-mail. “This rail was laid between 1940 and 1951. It is now not feasible to maintain ride quality on these segments for passenger trains operating at speeds of 79 mph.”
For speeds to be able to return to 79 mph, new rail would have to be installed along the segments — and there are no plans to replace the rail “at this time,” Williams said.
While BNSF officials wouldn’t identify the segments of track involved in the slowdown, Fred W. Frailey, a freelance writer and special correspondent for Train Magazine, said officials confirmed for him it involved about 180 miles of the more than 365-mile route from Newton to La Junta, Colo., including an area from Hutchinson to 22 miles west, from east of Dodge City to west of Garden City, and from Syracuse to Las Animas, Colo.
BNFS, a division of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., owns the line and runs a couple of freight trains a day on it. Under an agreement with Amtrak that took effect in January, BNSF has agreed to maintain the track to allow both freight and passenger speeds up to 40 mph, but Amtrak would be responsible for costs to keep the track maintained for 79 mph operation.
In an article he wrote last year about the deal, Frailey estimated it’s costing Amtrak about $10 million per year to maintain the track from Newton to New Mexico for those speeds.
The track is now to the point, however, that entire segments of line need to be replaced with continuous non-welded track in order to continue those higher speeds. Those costs would run into the millions.
“The railroad has been saying for years that the rail from Albuquerque to Hutchinson is 60 to 70 years old, and when it wears out, they’re not prepared to replace it,” Frailey said.
“That goes back 15 years, through two different CEOs. It appears that time has come.”