By Forrest Whitman
There’s shock in Colorado at the real prospect of losing the popular passenger train, the Chief. The rumors out of AMTRAK all say the Chief is in a railroad death spiral. The new President of AMTRAK, Richard Anderson, runs AMTRAK like President Trump runs the White House. There’s no public input or transparency. When he talks of taking a hard look at the Chief, it’s not good news.
How do we stop the AMTRAK leadership from killing a train we depend on? The facts alone won’t stop this war on intercity rail. Instead, lightening up and building positive attitudes could get us a hearing.
Talking about how the AMTRAK administration apparently distorts facts about our passenger trains probably won’t change attitudes either. Instead I like talking about what five of us just did. We got on the Southwest Chief and headed out to Kansas City. It was fun.
We got off the Chief at that lovely old KC passenger station after being rocked to sleep all night in those little berths. We’d had a good dinner in the diner. We were ready to sightsee and go to a baseball game and some jazz clubs. That’s what taking a train is all about.
The rumors are that the leadership at AMTRAK wants to kill all long-distance passenger trains and put the money into short-distance trains. AMTRAK’s new president comes directly out of the airline industry where the name of the game is cost cutting and service shrinking. Shrinking service so far means no more hot food on two eastern overnight trains, termination of passenger agents at stations like La Junta, and laying off the PR wonks who were recently talking of boosting the Winter Park ski train and possible Pueblo service.
Most ominous of all, AMTRAK makes noises about backing out of the $16 million TIGER grant for the Chief partnered with the BNSF railroad. That final phase was carefully worked out with BNSF, three states who’ve put in $71 million, AMTRAK at $3 million, along with contributions from a dozen towns and counties. On our trip we talked with plenty of folks from little towns in Colorado who depend on the Chief for transportation. I was surprised to hear they knew this bad news.
Planning a trip on the Chief does call for thinking ahead. We booked a few weeks in advance because the Chief is often sold out on certain segments. That’s despite an overall “filled seat miles” figure of 61.5 percent (not 40 percent of seat miles as AMTRAK erroneously claims). It’s actually kind of fun planning ahead. We had guys reading up on Raton Pass or the history of the Santa Fe Trail we rode alongside. Thinking about the trip was lots of fun.
The outrage at the possible killing of the Chief is there aplenty. Joseph A. Boardman, eight year President of AMTRAK, recently wrote in Railwayage.com: “I am appalled with what increasingly appears to be a unilateral violation of the public trust by AMTRAK’s current leadership to dismantle our interconnected, intercity rail passenger network beginning with hollowing out of its long-distance passenger train service.”
Boardman is great, but folks are more likely to listen to positive stories about trips on the Chief. I’m thinking of the older couple in Trinidad who depend on the Chief as their sole source of mobility. They had funny stories of fighting for the lower berth. They remember the Boy Scouts who were riding the Chief to Philmont Scout Ranch for a first trip away from home. Or take the lady whose dog chased a ground squirrel at the fresh air stop in La Junta. Those are the trips we need to hear about.
When we hear Anderson arguing that the Chief is unsafe because it operates over non-positive train control territory, we need to take a deep breath. It’s fun just to look out the car window and realize that the Chief alone operates over that “non-PTC” territory.
We like it that the Chief can’t be run like one of Anderson’s airplanes. It stops at 36 stations, not two like a plane does. Time stretches out and wrist watches are put away. The vacation begins when you board.
Not to minimize the threat to the Chief, as Joe Boardman writes: “AMTRAK is limiting the substance of public briefings, denying journalists access to relevant management officials and making decisions in isolation.” Anderson at the head end of AMTRAK really could kill our train.
But I think we’ll get better support for the Chief if we lighten up. I’d like to talk about how good it feels to wake up seeing the sun over Kansas and smelling the coffee brewing in our car. That cheery, “good morning!” “Did you hear first call for breakfast?” That car attendant is worth remembering, and his train is worth keeping on the rails. I’m for lightening up and telling positive tales about the Chief. ?
Forrest Whitman hosts a radio show at KHEN.org where he interviews passengers who love the Chief.