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Is Amtrak's Proposed Flagstaff Route Closure 'Canary In The Coal Mine' For Future Of Train Travel In U.S.?

It used to be that if you needed to travel across the country, you wouldn’t get on a plane, you’d hop on a train. And if you’ve lived on the East Coast, you know Amtrak is still the way a lot of people travel.

But there isn’t even an Amtrak stop here in Phoenix and, out here in the West, Amtrak wants to scale back travel options even further.

Amtrak is proposing that the publicly-funded passenger train service close a 200 mile section of Amtrak’s Southwest line and replace it with bus service. That has train organizations fighting against what some are calling the beginning of the end of train transportation as we know it.

Many in Flagstaff are concerned the move will greatly reduce the number of tourists who come to their city by train. According to the Arizona Daily Sun, more than 41,000 passengers went through that city’s downtown Amtrak station in 2016.

For a reaction to this, The Show got a hold of Sean Jeans-Gail with the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the largest national membership advocacy organization for train and rail transit passengers.

He’s concerned that there’s going to be a full-scale restructuring of the Amtrak network and, if this 200 mile section is closed off, we'll end up losing the entire route from Los Angeles to Chicago.

The Show also reached out to Amtrak about this. The company sent a statement saying the Southwest Chief route is facing significant future costs in track upgrades, so it’s analyzing the route and considering options to enhance safety.

Amtrak's full statement:

"During conversations with members of the Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico congressional delegations, Amtrak indicated that we are considering various service options for the Southwest Chief in response to the significant host railroad costs facing Amtrak for continued use of the middle portion of the route between Dodge City and Albuquerque.  These options will consider the long-term operating and capital costs of continuing current service over the entire route and alternate bus and rail service combinations that would ensure continued transportation service and connections to the Amtrak rail network for all communities along the route.  The Southwest Chief is unique in that it is the only route where a significant section of infrastructure is owned by a host railroad – BNSF Railway – but solely used by Amtrak. Significant future costs are facing Amtrak to upgrade the BNSF track. Amtrak is thoroughly analyzing the route and considering the appropriate strategies for enhancing safety for operations after the December 2018 federal deadline for Positive Train Control."

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.