October 4, 2018 - RailPassengers.org / TRA Newswire - Amtrak provided its clearest statement yet that train service will continue on Positive Train Control-exempt routes in 2019, contradicting earlier reports that the Amtrak Board was requiring PTC on lines that would include the Texas Eagle. When directly confronted with tough questions by Senators representing Southwest Chief states, Amtrak confirmed in a hearing this week before the Senate Commerce Committee on Surface Transportation that it will continue to operate train service on the Southwest Chief route along with other PTC-exempt lines including the Texas Eagle.
“This is a huge win for our Association, for passengers, and for the states that rely on the Southwest Chief,” said Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews. “It shows that advocacy works, and I want to thank every person who took part in our campaign in defense of the National Network. Now, we need to take that energy and turn it towards the coming reauthorization where we can make a positive vision for passenger rail in the U.S.: fast and frequent trains, 21st Century equipment, and on-time service that passengers can count on.”
Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) led off the inquiry, posing tough questions to Amtrak’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Scott Naparstek.
“Will Amtrak commit, publicly, to stop pursuing the proposal of replacing the train with buses for the Southwest Chief for fiscal year 2019,” asked Senator Udall.
“We are well aware of the Senate’s position as well as the directive that is in the Senate’s version of the 2019 appropriations act,” Naparstek responded. “We plan on running the Southwest Chief, as is, through fiscal year 2019 and we await the Congress’ dealing with the Southwest Chief issue during conference as well as in the final spending bill.”
“Thank you very much for that commitment, and I think it will make many of the senators who are here at the dais—Senator [Jerry] Moran and Senator [Cory] Gardner—[happy]” Udall, the Senator from New Mexico, responded. “We’ve worked in a bipartisan way to keep this going. We intend to obviously go well beyond 2019. But I reiterate the need for Amtrak to work with the communities impacted to create a real plan for the future of the Southwest Chief.”
In a social media post after the hearing, Senator Udall thanked Amtrak, but also expressed disappointment that Amtrak still won’t release the $3 million match the railroad had previously committed, which has stranded $22 million in additional U.S. DOT, local, and private sector funding that has been secured for improvement work on the Southwest Chief.
That idea was also raised in the hearing by Senator Gardner (R-CO), who quoted a letter Amtrak had written to Colfax County, New Mexico in support of a Southwest Chief grant application. The letter stated “the advancement of the Southwest Chief improvement project will not only significantly improve our nation’s transportation infrastructure but will also contribute to the economic competitiveness of the United States.”
Rail Passengers stands in agreement with the senators from New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas—along with communities all across the Southwest Chief and National Network—and is committed to working tirelessly in defense of a truly national passenger rail system.
Fate of the daily Texas Eagle was in doubt until the Amtrak announcement. A Union Pacific subdivision south of St. Louis and north of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, only lightly unsed for freight service but one that hosts two daily Texas Eagle's was on a short list of endangered lines that could have substitute bus service, which would interrupt passenger rail through travel.