Railroad officials have arranged a special train ride this week to let state and local officials see and feel firsthand the problems of deteriorating track on the route of the Southwest Chief through Kansas.
An Amtrak engine will pull specially equipped BNSF Railway cars from Topeka to La Junta, Colo., with “theater seating,” allowing officials to view the track as the train passes over it, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.
Some 30 to 40 people will participate in at least part of Thursday’s trip, as the train stops in cities along the route to pick up local officials. After reaching La Junta about 4:45 p.m., the participants will board the Southwest Chief later that evening to return home.
Scheduled participants include vice presidents for Amtrak and BNSF Fe, the Kansas secretary and deputy secretary of transportation, KDOT’s bureau chief of transportation planning and its chief of governmental affairs.
Hutchinson City Manager John Deardoff and Hutchinson Mayor Dave Razo plan to participate. Officials from other stops along the route in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico have also been invited. A federal lobbyist hired by a number of cities on the route will also be there, Deardoff said.
The passenger train has had to slow its speeds while passing through much of the western part of the state because of the track condition. The ends of the steel rails are starting to sag because of age, setting up a rocking motion in the train if it passes over too fast.
BNSF owns the track, but maintains the rail only to a level required for 30- to 40-mph freight traffic. Under its contract with BNSF, Amtrak is required to fund any maintenance or improvements for higher speeds and, starting in 2016, Amtrak will be required to begin paying the full cost of maintaining the route.
Amtrak and BNSF have suggested that the three states and the two railroads share the $100 million cost over the next decade to improve the tracks and also split $10 million a year in annual operating subsidies between the states, Amtrak and BNSF Railroad to maintain the route.
Transportation officials from the three states, in a written response last August to the proposal, indicated that state funding isn’t available.
Amtrak has warned, however, that without a commitment by the end of 2014 to help make the necessary repairs and maintain the route, it will reroute the Southwest Chief through Oklahoma and Texas — via Wichita.
“It’s part of our effort to educate state and local officials about the challenges we face,” Amtrak’s Magliari said.
The ride should give officials “a better understanding of what’s needed to keep service on the route” as dialogue between state and railroad officials continues, said Lindsey Douglas, KDOT chief of governmental affairs.
“I’m excited,” Douglas said. “It will give us a new level of detail we haven’t had as far as exactly what the improvements are and to get an explanation firsthand who will benefit.”