Amtrak CEO’s Priorities Could Be Good News For Train Travel In Colorado

(Photo: Courtesy of Steve Wilson)
<p>The Southwest Chief rail line, just east of Trinidad, Colo. The Sangre de Cristo mountain range looms in the distance.</p>

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn recently sent a letter to Congress outlining his priorities for the national passenger rail system, which includes the Southwest Chief that runs through Southern Colorado as well as northern Colorado’s California Zephyr.

First on the list is more than $1.54 billion in additional COVID-19 relief funding to help keep the trains running through the end of September. It would also restore daily service by summer on the system’s long-distance routes, like the Southwest Chief and Zephyr, which were cut to three days a week last year due to the pandemic.

If the funding is approved, it would mean furloughed employees could be back on the job serving more passengers in time for the busy summer season and help support Colorado’s economy.

Flynn is also looking to improve Amtrak’s ability to create new routes under 500 miles, which could include Colorado's Front Range Rail project, by allowing the company to cover costs before requiring states to contribute. He writes that these types of routes are the fastest-growing segment of Amtrak service.

Colorado Rail Passenger Association President Jim Souby was recently appointed as chair of the State of Colorado Southwest Chief & Front Range Passenger Rail Commission. He said Flynn’s leadership at Amtrak is a change from the previous CEO.

“He’s come out very strongly in support of the national passenger system,” Souby said. “He’s very strongly in support of state routes like the one we’d like to do in Colorado.”

Flynn also requested better ways to address issues resulting from sharing tracks with freight railroads. Currently, Amtrak has to rely on the U.S. attorney general to enforce track access rights, according to Jim Mathews with the national Rail Passengers Association.

“As you might imagine, trying to get the attorney general of the United States to focus on something as small as late trains on the Southwest Chief... Well, that's not going to go anywhere,” Mathews said.

Another priority looks to establish a federal Intercity Passenger Rail Trust Fund aimed at long term planning that isn't reliant on annual federal funding.

In the letter, Flynn writes that “Amtrak and intercity passenger rail are the only mode of surface transportation without a federal trust fund to provide reliable, multiyear program funding.” 

The letter goes on to say that a predictable source of funding is necessary for Amtrak to improve and expand its network. 

Mathews anticipates a relief bill making its way through Congress by mid-March, but said that could change.