Off track

Deteriorating tracks in Kansas are an indication that the nation isn’t trying hard enough to increase Amtrak ridership.

Especially when national Amtrak ridership is at a record-setting pace, it’s disappointing to learn that tracks serving the Southwest Chief in Kansas are in such poor shape that passenger trains have been ordered to lower their speed as a safety measure.

BNSF Railway ordered Amtrak trains to maintain speeds below 60 mph instead of the previous 79 mph between Hutchinson and La Junta, Colo. The slowdown is expected to add about 45 minutes to the travel time between those two cities but probably won’t increase the overall travel time from Chicago to Los Angeles because time can be made up elsewhere on the route.

According to BNSF officials, the order was necessary because of the deteriorating condition of tracks that were laid 60 to 70 years ago. The most discouraging aspect of the order is that there are no plans to try to remedy the situation, no plans to rebuild or upgrade the tracks so the speed limit can return to its previous level.

It’s good news, in a way, that all of the track involved in the recent order is west of track that is part of a plan to provide a new Amtrak route from Newton south to Dallas. The bad news, however, is that service is being compromised on the long-running Southwest Chief route that currently provides the only Amtrak service in Kansas.

Ironically, this discouraging track news coincides with far more positive news about Amtrak ridership. In April, Amtrak reported that ridership for the first half of its current fiscal year (October 2009 to March 2010) was up 4.3 percent over the previous year. A more recent report in the Wall Street Journal indicated that, bolstered by a 9.8 percent increase in July, Amtrak ridership was up 6.1 percent for the fiscal year.

The Wall Street Journal also noted that Amtrak is expected to announce in the near future plans to use electric-powered locomotives in the busy Northeast corridor. Those trains will be able to exceed 110 mph. A train that can travel at that speed obviously is far more tempting to travelers than one that must slow to 60 mph across dilapidated tracks in Kansas and Colorado.

With airline prices rising and gasoline prices that have ticked upward in the last year, many people are looking to Amtrak as an attractive travel option. Energy conservation and environmental benefits also should get government officials more interested in supporting rail transportation.

The nation can’t operate a 21st century railway on 20th century tracks. This is an important part of America’s transportation infrastructure that demands more government support and funding.