Amtrak’s Southwest Chief has become threatened as never before.
Can you imagine the Chief, one of the most scenic Amtrak trains, suddenly stripped of all of its best scenery? What that would do to its ridership?
Sadly, that is exactly what will happen if Amtrak does not handle the transition well when the train moves to a new routing.
Here, I propose ways to keep one of America’s premier trains sublimely scenic and to make it even more popular.
Image above: This outstanding photo © by Mark Hinsdale shows the Chief departing Chicago Union Station on September 9, 2012.
At any moment, operating conditions through the rugged mountains of northern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado could terminate Amtrak Chief service.
If not immediately, Amtrak will almost certainly have to move the Chief to a southern route between Albuquerque and eastern Kansas when its agreement to use the current line expires in 2015.
This southern route avoids stunning scenery, to put it mildly.
If Amtrak schedules its new routing in the same way as the current one for maximum same-day connections at Chicago, the Chief will become in my opinion the least compelling long-distance train in the western United States.
Until now, the striking southwestern panoramas of Arizona and New Mexico have strongly motivated travelers to take the Chief. That could unfortunately change.
Above: Flagstaff’s Amtrak station used by the Chief brings you into the heart of its historic downtown, with old Route 66 behind behind the vehicles. Humphreys Peak, the highest mountain in Arizona, rises beyond.
Unlike now, the proposed schedule puts you in Flagstaff during daylight all year. © Flagstaff Convention & Visitors Bureau.
I propose a Southwest Chief schedule with three major goals:
These objectives are accomplished in three ways:
Above: I took this photo from the Chief while crossing western New Mexico toward Navajo Country. This train, I was told, was doing 90 mph.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) no longer uses the Amtrak Chief route through northern New Mexico and even claims that it no longer owns it. The railway no longer pays for major maintenance. Neither will a financially strapped State of New Mexico.
Because the Chief uses this line, Amtrak faces deteriorating track conditions that cause delays.
A downright bizarre legal dispute has developed. Essentially, BNSF maintains that the State of Mexico purchased the New Mexico portion of its northern line, while the State insists that it did not and wants $2.675 million of the $4.7 million it paid BNSF back. That the money remains in escrow boosters the argument that the sale was never consummated.
Given Amtrak’s shaky funding situation and the uncertainty over whether BNSF or the State holds responsibility for repairs, a major landslide or washout could end Chief service at any time.
Moreover, as track deteriorates along the current Chief route across much of Kansas and southeastern Colorado, BNSF no longer maintains speeds at passenger train standards. The railroad does not need high speeds for its limited freight operations.
In a few places, speed limits have fallen to as low as 10 mph, with reportedly 40-60 mph operation now over many sections of the line. Traveling at this rate over long distances is totally unacceptable for long-distance passenger train operations.
As with New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas have indicated that they will not fund the Chief, not surprisingly as it travels through an area of sparse population.
According to Julie Ann Grimm of the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, BNSF estimates that improving and maintaining the northern route to Amtrak standards would cost at least $100 million over 10 years. After that, BNSF wants $10 million per year to keep it that way.
Most likely, spending that amount for just one roundtrip train per day will not happen.
In an attempt to resolve the situation, BNSF invited Amtrak to reroute the Chief via its mainline through Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle and eastern New Mexico. This route already exceeds Amtrak standards.
Even if Amtrak resists moving, I doubt that the agreement permitting Amtrak to use the northern route will be renewed in 2015. By then of course, BNSF may have withdrawn its invitation.
Above: As with most passenger trains, the Chief brings you into the heart of cities it serves. Here looking out from Union Station, trees obscure El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, where 44 settlers of African, European, and indigenous descent from Mexico founded Los Angeles in 1781.
This shows the proposed schedule. Its pros and cons follow. For a more complete version with connections, see Part III.
All stops on the new portion of the Chief route are displayed, as well as a selection of stops on the portions that will remain the same.
|Read Down ↓||Read Up ↑|
|1:00p||Washington, DC (ET)||1:50p|
|2:17a||Toledo, OH (ET)||12:16a|
|7:30a||Chicago, IL (CT)||7:00p|
|3:30p||Kansas City, MO||9:12a|
|1:46a||Amarillo, TX (CT)||10:26p|
|2:24a||Clovis, NM (MT)||7:38p|
|(Navajo Country + Painted Desert)|
|11:37a||Flagstaff, AZ (MST)||7:26a|
|(Kaibab National Forest)|
|(Mojave Desert westbound)|
|6:19p||Barstow, CA (PT)||12:41a|
|9:49p||Loa Angeles, CA||9:00p|
Above: Amtrak uses the bridge over the Potomac River on the right to enter Harpers Ferry National Historic Site in West Virginia, where John Brown led the first slave rebellion in the United States.
With the proposed schedule, outstanding Appalachian scenery like this continues much of the way into western Pennsylvania. © steheap - Fotolia.com
This schedule can be marketed as an essential American experience.
In my opinion, richness of scenery in order to attract riders makes breaking a few connections worthwhile. Keeping the route compelling helps the Chief survive.
Amtrak’s California Zephyr and Coast Starlight trains owe their immense popularity to their scenic routes. Travelers deliberately choose the Starlight over much faster alternatives. For its Zephyr, Amtrak selected a much slower route in order to offer the beauty of the Colorado Rockies.
In contrast, the Chief can retain a very scenic routing without adding to its travel time.
Compared to other cities, the sheer number of connections available at Washington, in case of a late train, will dramatically reduce delays in reaching cities in the Northeast.
In the future, reduced delays will slash the $10.7 million total Amtrak projected in its 2012 operating budget for “passenger inconvenience.” This includes putting passengers in hotels and feeding them when they miss their trains, as well as flying some to their destinations.
Nearly the entire line from Los Angeles to Washington, DC has been double tracked, far more than any other routing. That means that trains from opposite directions can effortlessly pass each other without waiting. Moreover, a faster train like the Chief can weave around a slower one going the same direction, much as you do when safely passing on a two-lane road.
Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway owned BNSF mainline between Chicago and Los Angeles stays in especially superb condition.
This comes as very welcome news for those of us who do not sleep well in coach seats and who cannot or will not budget for a private room, which currently costs at least $460 extra for one person traveling DC to Los Angeles.
Destination-specific advantages include
Above: This photo of a rock formation on the Chief route near Gallup, NM turned out much better than mine. © New Mexico Tourism Department
For example, travelers from Buffalo, Erie, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis no longer reach Los Angeles four days per week without staying a night in Chicago.
Most connection problems can be fixed easily by modest changes in connecting schedules.
A few others like Detroit resist convenient fixing.
In the proposed timetable, I set up a guaranteed Amtrak Thruway bus connection from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Guaranteed means that the bus will wait for the Southwest Chief.
I also set up guaranteed nonstop Thruway service from Riverside, CA to San Diego letting those passengers arrive at a far more convenient time.
Given Amtrak’s financial situation, state and local funding will probably be needed for additional stations on the new route. Until then, I have designated just one stop each in Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and eastern New Mexico.
This Chief schedule breaks some connections, but also
Amtrak should adopt a schedule like this. Timing for scenery and customer satisfaction takes the Southwest Chief into a brighter future.
For readers who want to dive into the nitty-gritty, I have included three additional sections. This is a serious proposal.
Part II discusses how the Washington political environment impacts an Amtrak route selection.
Part III shows a more extensive proposed timetable, with connections.
Part IV goes into detail about creating the proposed schedule and lists decisions that still need to be made.
Your comments are very much appreciated!
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