Change In Amtrak Leadership Raises Questions About The Future Of The Southwest Chief

Jan 7, 2019
Originally published on January 3, 2019 3:47 am

For several years now, a state commission has been looking into ways to preserve and expand Amtrak's long-distance passenger rail line, the Southwest Chief. It travels through southern Colorado, with stops in Lamar, La Junta, and Trinidad. The group is also looking at the possibility of passenger rail along Colorado's Front Range. 

Colorado Springs City Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler now chairs the commission and spoke with 91.5 KRCC's Andrea Chalfin about their work. In part one of an interview with Gaebler, we talk about the change in Amtrak leadership that came in 2017 and what it may signal for the Southwest Chief.

Jill Gaebler: It's a complicated conversation around the Southwest Chief because Amtrak has new leadership. They have a new CEO who was most recently the CEO at Delta Airlines—so different, but similar sort of transportation background. And somehow, I think that that plays into the decision making. Amtrak is really trying to look strategically at how they best serve the country, and they seem to be focusing strategically more on providing more urban types of transportation. 

And so these long routes through less dense areas from Kansas, for instance, to Albuquerque are not possibly going to be their priority in the future. They have let us know statewide that they are considering taking out the line altogether making it a bus route. This flies in the face of the work that, as you know, has been going on at the state level to not only preserve the route but to extend the route and so to hear that they might possibly not only not extend but cancel the route was is fairly devastating to our group. We are hopeful. Of course, our legislators are engaged, but it doesn't seem like Amtrak has the desire to really fulfill that that that request. But we'll see.

91.5 KRCC: It's no secret that long distance train lines actually do not really support themselves. Where do you think that the shift comes from?

Gaebler: I think that's a really good thing to mention, is that no transportation runs without subsidies. None. Your roads do not operate without subsidies. The federal government and the governments maintain your roads. Everything takes government assistance and Amtrak is no different... 

Maybe they do sense at the federal level that there is a shift away from transit. I definitely feel that shift, and so maybe they're trying to figure out how they can stay competitive with fewer dollars from the government. That would be the only thing I could guess.

91.5 KRCC: But you said there's still a need for this particular line. Can you talk a little bit about what you're hearing from other folks in the commission?

Gaebler: These smaller communities throughout the state of Colorado and then down into New Mexico really depend on this line. We don't have of course air service to these locations and I think it's critical that we find a way to serve them. 

It's commerce. I mean it's not just, you know, going to see your grandma. It is how we move goods. And so I think it's relevant it's important and I wish more people understood the complexities of the conversation and that there there's a chance they could lose their line. I don't know how they're communicating that down there. We don't talk about it here. It's anything I do locally to try to promote Front Range rail or talk about the Southwest Chief falls on deaf ears.

Editor's Note: After this conversation took place, the U.S. Department of Transportation granted $9 million dollars for safety improvements along the Southwest Chief route between Dodge City, Kansas and Las Animas, Colorado.

In an emailed statement, Gaebler said the commission, "remains uncertain, but hopeful, about its impact on Amtrak and the future of the rail line. This grant certainly does provide us significant leverage as we work with our senators, who are trying to get Amtrak to continue investing in the Chief." 

Currently Amtrak has pledged to continue the Southwest Chief line through October 1, 2019.

This interview was edited for time and clarity puposes.

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