Derailment on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief

Southwest Chief

(Source: Flikr Creative Commons)

I cringe when I read sentences like this: “Amtrak’s Southwest Chief was carrying more than 140 people when several rail cars derailed early Monday, moments after an engineer noticed a significant bend in a rail and applied the emergency brakes, authorities said. At least 32 people were hurt, two of them critically.” (Source: New York Times)

Unfortunately, I was not surprised to hear about a derailment on this portion of the Chief’s route. Trains reported on a July 2014 special trip Amtrak put together “to give local and state stakeholders the opportunity to observe deteriorating track conditions along the Southwest Chief’s route, and to discuss infrastructure improvement funding with Amtrak operations and government affairs managers.”  The photo gallery that accompanied the article included “A close-up of rails at Milepost 365.1 (between Dodge City and Garden City)” that “shows how the ends are battered at the joints, making a ride on the Chief across Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico a noisy experience. BNSF’s plan to restore track to 79 mph (Class 4) and agree to maintain it at that speed for 20 years calls for replacing this bolted rail with continuous welded rail. It will renew the ties and ballast if the states and Amtrak help pay for new rail.”

The Chief derailed near Cimarron, Kansas, about one-half of the way on the route between Dodge City and Garden City.

Bolted rail is an outdated technology that is sufficient for freight railroads but woefully inadequate for modern passenger operations. According to the Times article, “Andy Williams, a spokesman for BNSF Railway, which owns the track, said the derailment was not caused by poorly maintained track. He said the track is inspected twice a week and meets Federal Railroad Administration guidelines.”

I am certain that Mr. Williams’s statement is factually true in that  that BNSF maintains the track to FRA guidelines and standards sufficient for freight trains. However, does this mean it is up to passenger railroad needs?  An article in the October 2014 issue of Trains, “Probing the ‘Chief’ alternatives,” by Bob Johnston (no relation), makes me wonder.  In particular, Johnston writes:

Trying to chase today’s Southwest Chief, on a two-day inspection special for on-line communities hosted by Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman , reveals a line perfectly suited for fast passenger trains. Miles of arrow-straight track or gentle curves, a mildly undulating roadbed, little freight traffic, and Automatic Train Stop signaling once good for 90 mph facilitate efficient passenger-train operation on the best possible route between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Perfectly suited, that is, on sections where BNSF Railway has not allowed miles of bolted rail to badly deteriorate. Outside a closed (on weekends) station at Garden City, Kan., passengers waiting in an intermittent drizzle for the eastbound Chief battled bugs while the train’s projected arrival slipped. It finally arrived at 1:28 a.m., more than 2 hours late, and more than an hour after an estimate based on its departure from Lamar, Colo. The culprit: 30 mph speed restrictions the railroad is in no hurry to fix, because that pace is sufficient for the empty coal drags, oil blocks, and general merchandisers whose frequency has increased.

We need passenger rail throughout the US, but Amtrak only owns the tracks in the Northeast Corridor and hardly has the resources to maintain that heavily-traveled speedway.  Everywhere else Amtrak is a guest on the tracks of freight railroads which have no reason to bring their tracks and roadbeds up to passenger standards unless they are given incentives to do so.

It’s time to put those incentives in place before a derailment like the one on Monday escalates from causing injuries to fatalities.