HUTCHINSON — Railroad officials have imposed slower speeds on Amtrak trains traveling through portions of western Kansas because of deteriorating track conditions.
The slowdown, which could become permanent, has added about 45 minutes to the run from La Junta, Colo., to Hutchinson.
Without a significant influx of spending on the line, the miles of slowdown are expected to increase with time.
Amtrak officials said they're reviewing whether to issue new timetables on the route in advance of a normal schedule update set to occur in October.
While the slower speeds will affect those on shorter trips, at least one rail expert said he didn't expect the change to hurt ridership on the overall Southwest Chief route — which runs from Los Angeles to Chicago — because the delay can easily be made up along the route.
BNSF Railway, which owns the track and contracts with Amtrak for its use, imposed the reduced speeds on Aug. 20 following an inspection, said BNSF spokesman Andy Williams.
"Yes, we do have a slow order in place — 60 mph for passenger, 40 mph for freight," Williams said in an e-mail. "This rail was laid between 1940 and 1951. It is now not feasible to maintain ride quality on these segments for passenger trains operating at speeds of 79 mph."
For speeds to return to 79 mph, new rail would have to be installed along the segments, and there are no plans to replace the rail "at this time," Williams said.
While BNSF officials wouldn't identify the segments of track involved in the slowdown, Fred Frailey, a freelance writer and special correspondent for Train Magazine, said officials confirmed for him it involved about 180 miles of the more than 365-mile route from Newton to La Junta, Colo.
BNSF, a division of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., owns the line and runs a couple of freight trains a day on it. Under an agreement with Amtrak that took effect in January, BNSF has agreed to maintain the track to allow both freight and passenger speeds up to 40 mph, but Amtrak would be responsible for costs to keep the track maintained for 79 mph operation.
In an article he wrote last year about the deal, Frailey estimated it's costing Amtrak about $10 million a year to maintain the track from Newton to New Mexico for those speeds.
The track is now to the point, however, that entire segments of line need to be replaced with continuous non-welded track in order to continue those higher speeds. Those costs would run into the millions.
"The railroad has been saying for years that the rail from Albuquerque to Hutchinson is 60 to 70 years old, and when it wears out, they're not prepared to replace it," Frailey said. "That goes back 15 years, through two different CEOs. It appears that time has come."
BNSF has proposed several times over the years for Amtrak to move the Southwest Chief route south, dipping down from Newton to Wichita, then southwest to Alva, Okla., on to Amarillo, Texas, and from there to Albuquerque.
Amtrak is not interested in a route change, however, and reiterated that this week.
"We are talking to them about operating conditions on the route," said Marc Magliari, media relations manager for Amtrak. "In the meantime, we have no plans or desire to change routes. ...
"We are looking at changes in our timetable to account for this change in our maximum speeds, so our passengers will have a better understanding when they need to be at which station to meet the train," Magliari said. "If necessary, we will produce a new timetable."
Amtrak normally issues a new timetable twice a year, in the spring and fall, he said.
In the meantime, the company encourages passengers to check whether trains are on time, either by going to its website at Amtrak.com or calling 800-USA-RAIL, before heading out.