Long-running frustration about Amtrak’s willingness to keep a rail passenger line running through remote parts of the country has politicians threatening to block new directors to the agency.
A handful of U.S. senators demanded specifics by this week about how Amtrak plans to spend an added $50 million to keep the Southwest Chief line running from Chicago, through Kansas, to Los Angeles.
Hoping to force Amtrak to make long-term promises of keeping the Southwest Chief line, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas had already used the power each senator holds to put a legislative block on the appointment of three nominees waiting to join the passenger rail agency’s board of directors.
Amtrak still has not specified when it will answer the pending questions from the Senate. A spokeswoman from Moran’s office said Amtrak has made contact, but not with answers about how it plans to alter long-distance routes or how the rail service calculates what states must chip in to support service.
“(Moran) will maintain those holds (on the nominations until he gets) assurances from Amtrak that it will continue to fund the Southwest Chief and funds that rail service,” said Moran spokeswoman Morgan Said.
Moran and other senators have criticized Amtrak for proposals to replace train services with buses along some parts of the route.
Amtrak officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In February, Congress gave $50 million for upkeep of the route to Amtrak to keep the line working through September. Last year, Amtrak proposed replacing service from Dodge City to Albuquerque with buses, but the federal budget prohibits the use of buses to replace long-distance train service along the route.
In early April, a group of 11 senators sent Amtrak a letter demanding more detail about its plans for the Southwest Chief and how, more broadly, it decides which long-distance routes are worth operating.
The Senate letter also addressed Amtrak’s claims that ridership is down. The most recent data provided by Amtrak says more than 52,000 passengers boarded the Southwest Chief line in Kansas in 2017, up 5.7 percent from 2016.
With 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. departures, Newton, the busiest station in the state, saw nearly 16,000 passengers in 2017. Erin McDaniel, communications director for the City of Newton, says the town supports the Southwest Chief and partners with other cities to fund it.
“We know many of our residents use it to get to Chicago as well as the Southwest,” McDaniel said.
Keeping the Southwest Chief running is important to Newton because preliminary efforts looking at establishing train service to connect Newton to the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, Texas, are underway.
“There used to be a train route that went there years ago,” McDaniel said, “but if the Southwest Chief goes away, dreams of extending the Heartland Flyer would go away with it.”
Over the last year, Amtrak has removed ticket agents from many stations. But Assistant City Manager for Dodge City Melissa Mccoy said the city employs staff at its train depot.
“We have few options in terms of public transportation,” McCoy said. She said ridership jumps with tourists in the summer.
Without the Southwest Chief route, McCoy says some Dodge City residents wouldn’t be able to travel long distances.
“We have a lot of working class folks, and they have limited income,” she said. “Amtrak provides them a way to visit family and go on vacation and without that they might not have it all.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the reason a hold was placed on Amtrak directors' appointments. U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran took that action to secure a pledge to keep the Southwest Chief line running.
Corinne Boyer is a reporter based in Garden City for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and HPPR covering health, education and politics. Follow her @Corinne_Boyer.
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