A possible change for Amtrak’s Southwest Chief could have ripple effects for lots of folks, including some around Kansas City.
The Chief makes a 45-hour, 2,200-mile run between Chicago and Los Angeles. The westbound train comes out of Chicago at 3 in the afternoon and makes Kansas City by a little after 10. (It crosses the Missouri River near the Sibley power plant and passes through Sugar Creek on the BNSF tracks on its way to Union Station.) After a half-hour layover, it leaves Kansas City at 10:45, heading west into the darkness of Kansas, with stops through the night in Lawrence, Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City.
By sunrise or so, it’s in southeastern Colorado and then the spectactular countryside of northeast New Mexico. Among other places, stops include Albuquerque (nice city), Flagstaff (I could retire to there tomorrow), and eventually Los Angeles (thanks, but you can keep that one). Going east, you still make those Kansas stops late, late at night or early in the morning, hitting Kansas City at 7:24 a.m. That’s why a year or so ago Amtrak pushed the morning River Runner out of Kansas City back 45 minutes. An 8:15 departure means some passengers can hop of the Chief and onto the River Runner and head for St. Louis.
Like the rest of Amtrak, business is up for the Southwest Chief. It carried more than 350,000 passengers in fiscal year 2011, a 3.7 percent from the year before, and revenues – $44.2 million – were up 6.2 percent.
But there’s trouble. Amtrak says the BNSF isn’t keeping those tracks in western Kansas to a high enough standard that the Chief can run flat out and make good times, topping out at 79 mph. The BNSF runs its freight trains there at around 45 mph, thus a lower standard of maintenance, and the railroad wants Amtrak to make up the difference in cost of maintenance. This is a problem estimated at $100 million (and Amtrak doesn’t have that kind of cash laying around). If upgrades aren’t made, Amtrak might switch to a more southerly route – Wichita, Amarillo, Clovis, N.M. – in a couple of years, skipping western Kansas and Colorado. So some of those cities are fighting the move, and they’ve kicked in money to hire former Sen. Bob Dole to lobby on their behalf. Stay tuned.
This would change the ride some. No more scenery of Colorado and northeast New Mexico. I’ve made the Kansas City-to-New Mexico drive a few times, and leaving aside all the cheap shots about flyover county and supposedly flat, treeless Kansas, I can say the drive across southern Kansas is thoroughly enjoyable – now and then. But part of what gets you across the wide plains is the hope of seeing desert and mountains in a few hours. Oklahoma and Amarillo aren’t quite the same.
I can think of one group, besides those towns in Kansas, that would be greatly disappointed if this change happened – the Boy Scouts. The primo destination place for Scouting is the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. (Be ready to hike.) Lots of Scouts and leaders take the Southwest Chief to Raton, N.M., on their way to Philmont. It’s part of the tradition, and I can tell you that Scouts love the romance of the rails as much as anyone.