Amtrak’s Southwest Chief service keeps rolling on new tracks in Kansas and Colorado

January 7, 2016

By Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY

GARDEN CITY, Kan.— Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train is rumbling through the pre-dawn darkness just east of the Colorado border when a pickup truck pulls into view on U.S. Highway 50, which parallels the tracks.Website Insert Our Name Tells Our Story copy

The truck slowly catches up to the train and then passes us, its taillights disappearing toward the Rockies. We’ll never catch up because our 268,000-pound locomotive isn’t allowed to go that fast.

“We’re just moseying along,” says conductor Marcelino Martinez.

Welcome to cross-country train travel, circa 2015.

Here, on the plains of Kansas, one of the country’s premier train routes is limited to no more than 79 mph, and that’s a best-case scenario. Much of the time, the train runs far slower on the scenic eight-state route tracing portions of the pioneer Santa Fe Trail from Chicago to Los Angeles.

The tracks have deteriorated to the point where federal officials have limited the train’s speed across Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, in some cases to just 30 or 40 mph, lengthening the trip by two hours. The privately owned tracks are fine for freight traffic, which is what they’re mostly used for: “Coal doesn’t care when it gets there,” says Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

For rail enthusiasts, things could actually be much worse. In 2012, the tracks’ owner, BNSF Railway, told Amtrak it needed to come up with $100 million to upgrade the tracks if it wanted to keep using the rails. Amtrak, a federal agency that runs the U.S. rail system  , didn’t  have that kind of money.

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