They’re among the last holdovers from the golden age of American train travel, but the changing relationship between the federal government and the states could mean the end of the line for some of Amtrak’s long-distance routes.
States have shown they’re willing to pay for popular Amtrak corridors within their borders, but it’s less than certain that they could assume responsibility for more than a dozen cross-country trains that date to the creation of Amtrak by Congress in 1970.
Passenger trains have been stopping in Hutchinson, Kan., since the early 1870s. But the agricultural center of 42,000 is in danger of losing the one that still stops there every day.
“The bottom line is when you have something, and you’ve had it for so long and it’s served so many people, you hate to lose it,” said Hutchinson City Manager John Deardoff.
To critics, Amtrak’s long-distance trains don’t reflect the way Americans travel today. They carry the fewest passengers and lose the most money, funds that could be spent elsewhere, such as Amtrak’s heavily traveled Northeast Corridor.
In a May hearing, Rep. Jeff Denham, a California Republican and chairman of the railroads subcommittee in the House of Representatives, noted that Amtrak’s long-distance routes lost a combined $600 million in 2012.
“We simply cannot afford to continue these levels of subsidized losses year after year,” Denham said.
To supporters, the trains provide a lifeline to rural communities far from major airports and interstate highways. They help travelers bypass airport security and traffic jams. They’re more accessible to the elderly and disabled.
“People appreciate the range of travel alternatives an integrated national system can offer,” Amtrak president and CEO Joseph Boardman said in testimony at the May hearing.
One of those trains is the Southwest Chief, which clicks off 2,265 miles between Chicago and Los Angeles. With the exception of Kansas City, Mo., Topeka, Kan., and Albuquerque, N.M., the backdrop is mostly prairie, mountains and desert. But the train also serves dozens of small towns, including several in western Kansas.
“If you look at these small communities,” Boardman said in an October conference call with reporters, “they depend on Amtrak being accessible.”
The Southwest Chief calls in Hutchinson in the middle of the night, and the station ranks pretty far down the list in annual boardings. The city has highways and an airport. Still, Deardoff, the city manager, said, it’s a valued link.
In an email, former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole said that Amtrak’s original map was drawn “with the understanding that the entire system benefits from long-distance service.”
“It is important that people in rural communities have access to the benefits of passenger rail service,” said Dole, who served for 27 years and was the 1996 Republican presidential nominee.
But neither federal nor state funding may be available to sustain long-distance service.
The train travels a historic route across western Kansas that needs millions of dollars in repairs. BNSF Railway, one of North America’s largest freight rail companies, owns the line but uses it sparingly. If Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico can’t come up with roughly $100 million in the next few years, the train will have to find another track.
“Our difficulty is in getting the three states to come to the table,” Deardoff said. “That’s not been promising.”
Amtrak carried more than 31 million passengers in the most recent fiscal year – a record, but still nowhere near 600 million domestic airline passengers.
Three times as many passengers boarded short-distance trains as did they did longer routes. But the longer routes actually cost more to operate.
Amtrak has received more than $40 billion in more than 40 years. Republicans in the House of Representatives have repeatedly tried to end its federal subsidies, which would basically pull the plug on the long-distance trains. They’ve gained some odd company in the Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington policy group, which called for states to subsidize their long-distance trains if they considered them essential.
Russ Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which supports continued federal funding for Amtrak’s long-distance routes, dismissed the idea that states would pick up the tab. He said that if three states couldn’t agree to help the Southwest Chief, then all eight states it passes through couldn’t, either.
“Someone is always going to be served in the middle of the night,” he said. “It’s a federal responsibility.”
In mid-October, Indiana became the last of 18 states to agree to pick up most of the cost to operate trains on routes of 750 miles or fewer, as required by a law Congress passed in 2008. The states consider those routes essential transportation service, from heavily Democratic California to Republican-dominated North Carolina.
But states are increasingly taking on infrastructure costs they once counted on Washington to cover, whether it’s funding for highway construction or port improvements. They might not have much more room in their budgets.
And as some states and cities have discovered, once you lose a train, it’s even more expensive to get it back.
Boise, Idaho, lost its Amtrak train, the Pioneer, 16 years ago. Amtrak said in a 2009 report that it would cost as much as $500 million to re-establish service on a Denver-Portland, Ore., route via Boise.
After Hurricane Katrina chewed up the Gulf Coast in 2005, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited stopped running east of New Orleans to Jacksonville, Fla., cutting out communities such as Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., and Pensacola and Tallahassee, Fla.
Efforts to bring the train back haven’t gained much traction, in spite of support from mayors and members of Congress. In 2009, Amtrak estimated the cost to restart the service at between $32 million and $96 million.
Late last year, Norfolk, Va., restored its missing Amtrak link after a 35-year absence, with $114 million in track and infrastructure improvements paid for with state funds.
The last passenger train stopped in Columbus, Ohio, in 1979. Now, with more than 800,000 residents, it is the largest city in the country without one.
Wichita, Kan., lost Amtrak service during the Carter administration. This past year, the city applied for a $12 million federal Department of Transportation grant to conduct environmental studies and design work to extend Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer, from Fort Worth, Texas, and Oklahoma City to Wichita and ultimately Kansas City. The application wasn’t approved.
A string of Kansas communities, including Hutchinson, applied for a similar $15 million grant to fix up the track used by the Southwest Chief. Their effort faltered, too.
Hutchinson’s loss could be Wichita’s gain. One alternate route for the Southwest Chief would bring the train through Wichita and Amarillo, Texas. But that route, also owned by BNSF, has become a primary freight artery between the ports in Southern California and the Midwest. Amtrak would compete for increasingly limited space.
One notable group of passengers would be affected if the Southwest Chief gets diverted: The Boy Scouts of America. Thousands of scouts ride the train every year to camp at the Philmont Ranch in northern New Mexico.
Amtrak’s Boardman told a group of reporters in October that he’d prefer to keep the train on its current route.
“We don’t want to move,” he said. “We expect to stay where we are.”