Amtrak’s Chicago-bound Southwest Chief derailed early Monday on a stretch of track in western Kansas that had deteriorated so badly that the railroad was close to reducing train speeds in some spots from 60 mph to 30 mph.
A combined $27.6 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation, along with some state and local money, was supposed to fix the track, some of which dates to the 1940s and ’50s, but the funding wasn’t enough to rebuild the entire 300-mile route between Hutchinson, Kansas, and La Junta, Colorado.
The portion of the route where the derailment took place, between Dodge City and Garden City, Kansas, was awaiting repairs to the track.
“It was definitely the older rail,” said Steve Cottrell, assistant to the city manager of Garden City, which applied for and received a federal grant to begin making the repairs in 2014.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what caused the eastbound Southwest Chief to derail near Cimarron, Kansas. Eight of the train’s nine cars derailed, according to Amtrak, including some that overturned. Of the train’s 131 passengers and 14 crew members, 32 people were taken to hospitals, Amtrak said.
A combined $27.6 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation, along with some state and local money, was supposed to fix the track.
Garden City is among the towns along the route that have banded together to preserve the Southwest Chief route. Freight hauler BNSF owns the track and in recent years it had decided it did not move enough of its own traffic to maintain higher speeds for the passenger train, currently the only one that serves Kansas.
In its 2014 application for a federal TIGER grant, Garden City noted the degraded track conditions for the train, which connects Chicago and Los Angeles, via Kansas City.
“Speeds have dropped from 90 mph in 2002 to 60 mph today and are in imminent danger of dropping again to 30 mph . . . slower than a farm tractor,” the city wrote. “If this decline is not reversed, the train will be terminated or rerouted.”
The application noted that “much of the rail is 30 percent past its normal useful life but still in generally good condition for salvage.”
The city’s application also noted that while BNSF could economically operate its handful of freight trains at slower speeds without publicly funded improvements, the delays added to Amtrak’s schedule would harm ridership on one of its most popular routes.
“A bumpy, rocking, nine-hour, 30 mph ride across Kansas and eastern Colorado is not an attractive option to consider,” the application said.
Rerouting the train to other lines would prove costly, the 26-page application said.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced in September 2014 that the department would award $12.4 million to Garden City to make the track improvements.
The Kansas Department of Transportation, local governments, Amtrak and BNSF contributed a combined $9.8 million in matching funds.
The funding enabled the upgrade of 55 miles of older bolted rail with new, continuously welded rail, boosting the top speed on those sections from 60 mph to 80 mph.
The investment was projected to save nearly two and a half hours on the train’s schedule.
If this decline is not reversed, the train will be terminated or rerouted.
Garden City, Kan., in a 2014 application for federal funding to repair the Southwest Chief route
TIGER, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, is a competitive grant program for discretionary funds launched with President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus. It’s been popular with mayors and governors in both parties as a tool to make infrastructure improvements to highways, ports and transit.
Last year, the city of La Junta, Colorado, won another $15.2 million from the TIGER program. Combined with another $9.8 million in state, local and private matching funds, the money was to be used to replace 39 miles of rail and repair 20 miles of roadbed in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico to maintain higher speeds for the Southwest Chief.
The project’s sponsors projected a time savings of nearly 90 minutes when complete.
But Garden City noted in its 2014 grant application that the funding would address only the most urgent repair needs.
“Although making a significant improvement,” the city wrote, “the TIGER investment does not address the full rehabilitative needs of the route.”
Last week, BNSF announced a $100 million capital spending program for its network in Kansas this year, funding that will be used to replace rail, ties and ballast.
However, Amy Casas, a BNSF spokeswoman, said the railroad did not plan any specific projects on the Southwest Chief’s route across western Kansas.
Cottrell said Garden City might be able to apply for another grant to make more repairs.
Applications for the 2016 TIGER program are due April 29.
The work to rebuild the Southwest Chief’s track began last fall, Cottrell said, and is to resume this spring.
“We’re just in the first year of that,” he said.