Amtrak memo to employees on Southwest Chief: No matter what Congress and the FRA says, we'll do it our way

Mark Meyer

Here is the Amtrak Employee Advisory Memo issued today on the SOUTHWEST CHIEF.


"We know many of you have concerns about the status of the Southwest Chief. Here’s an update:

We are considering changes to the route and operation of the Southwest Chief. No decision has been made yet on our long-term operation of the entire Southwest Chief route, but a portion of the route faces unique challenges because of extensive operational and capital investment costs required to continue the present service. We are considering all options on how to make this route work, given the changing needs of our passengers, our limited resources and the expectations of Congress to deliver this service safely and efficiently. What we want you and our stakeholders to know is that the status quo is not an option – we or others either have to invest more or make changes.

We are looking specifically at changes to the Southwest Chief because it requires a lot of capital investment to keep it running “as is.” The Southwest Chief currently loses more than $50M every year, and we will need to invest more than $100M in the next 3-5 years to bring the route to a State of Good Repair and to fully implement Positive Train Control, plus additional operating expenses that will likely add to the train’s annual losses. We are responsible for all maintenance and capital costs for a 219-mile stretch of the route between Colorado and New Mexico. Also, Positive Train Control is not installed on a 348-mile stretch between Dodge City, Kan., and Albuquerque. No other Amtrak route has this combination of operational losses with capital investment needs. And this is an issue for us because we have a clear mandate from Congress, which is stated in the FAST Act, to deliver our services in a cost-effective manner, and we are falling short of this mandate with the Southwest Chief. We have many capital needs at Amtrak, and we have limited resources. We have to balance the needs of the Southwest Chief with the needs of the rest of our National Network, including all of our other Long Distance trains.

We know that many of our customers and stakeholders value this route – and we are evaluating all options. We are continuing to have conversations with members of the Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico congressional delegations and state and local leaders about the various options and funding needs. In addition, we will have senior executives onboard the Southwest Chief next week to talk with our stakeholders along the route.

We will provide updates as new information becomes available. In the meantime, we ask that everyone continue to provide excellent service and hospitality to our Southwest Chief customers and continue to operate safely and with the high degree of professionalism that defines our employees."

For those of you who are following this, the bottom line is:  In spite of the previous Amtrak administration agreeing to fund the track maintenance between Trinidad and Lamy ($3 million annually), the current leadership at Amtrak is choosing not to honor that commitment.  It is interesting that Amtrak cities the need to meet "the expectations of Congress to deliver this service safely and efficiently" when referring to the Southwest Chief, but when congress has dictated in their past budget resolution that the current long distance network continue, and on-line congresspeople have specifically passed resolutions reiterating this, current Amtrak management just ignores it, and regurgitates its very flawed analysis of the Southwest Chief, including their new claim the route needs Positive Train Control in spite of the Federal Railroad Administration agreeing that this line doesn't.  And they never do explain how one of their alternatives - busing passengers around the areas without PTC - could ever be cheaper or safer than the current operation, nor do they explain why a simple point in time can render an operation without PTC unsafe!

I, for one, think that Amtrak (and supporters at NARP) erred horribly 15-20 years ago when Amtrak did not reroute the Southwest Chief away from Raton Pass (to a route via Clovis, NM) when BNSF offered it as an option (an option currently not available).  But the current Southwest Chief position at Amtrak - basically that they are untrustworthy because they don't honor agreements and are not transparent with regard to accounting of expenses - should be a wake up call to all proponents of rail passenger service outside the Northeast Corridor that indeed Amtrak's intent is to erode the service originating internally.

--Mark Meyer

"Eric J. \"Rick\" Allen"

These contradictions are concerning. I completely see (and agree with you) that Amtrak is looking to divest themselves of all long-distance routes outside of the Northeast Corridor. Imagine the outcry if they ran the NEC like they're trying to do to the rest of the rail network!


Eric Allen
Wilton, MN