TRANSIT: Amtrak claims federal safety regs could reroute or kill Southwest Chief


Congressional leaders were told the service might be terminated altogether

June 15, 2015

Amtrak’s safety issues continue to compound—and now it looks though a delayed application fo federal safety standards may reroute or even close a major artery in the Southwest.

Late last week, Amtrak told congressional leaders that it might terminate the Southwest Chief service altogether because it can’t afford to install required new safety technology. This announcement comes on the heels of a seeming positive step forward, as advocates of saving the historic route believed they had come up with a funding sources for necessary track repairs.

D.J. Stadtler, vice president of operations for Amtrak, told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on last Wednesday that Amtrak doesn’t have the $30 million needed to make federally mandated safety upgrades in Missouri, one of several states through which the Southwest Chief runs. This statement took place in conjunction with a hearing on passenger rail safety and efforts to implement a train control technology known as Positive Train Control, which a federal law enacted in 2008 mandates that certain railroad lines install the technology by the end of 2015. The Federal Railroad Administration has described Positive Train Control as a communications-based technology that prevents trains from derailing, speeding or moving through mainline switches that aren’t properly positioned.

Only certain railroads are required to implement the technology. Stadtler testified that Amtrak “owns relatively little of the infrastructure we operate over—about 97% of our route mileage is owned by host railroads.”

In Missouri, the Southwest Chief, a line that connects Chicago and Los Angeles, uses two host railroads, small operations known as the Kansas City Terminal and the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis. Those railroads are exempt from federal mandates to install Positive Train Control upgrades, said Stadtler, except if the lines are used by passenger trains. The two small railroads maintain that since Amtrak operates the passenger trains, thus triggering the mandate to install the safety upgrades, Amtrak should be responsible for installing Positive Train Control.

“Because Amtrak cannot afford this, and neither can the state of Missouri, we have notified KCT that Amtrak service over KCT territory will terminate by the end of the year unless an alternative is found,” Stadtler told the Senate committee. “We do not wish to cease service, but if this issue is not resolved soon, it could end in either the rerouting or termination of the Southwest Chief,” as well as a separate Amtrak train known as the River Runner.

Citing the complexity and costs of Positive Train Control technology, railroads say it’s not possible to implement it by the Dec. 31 deadline mandated by Congress. The Association of American Railroads said $5.7 billion has been spent on it to date and that another $9 billion will be needed to fully deploy it. The association says 2020 is a more feasible deadline.