Southwest Chief to go to three days per week Oct. 1

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

FORT MADISON – As Iowa Bridge and Culvert literally makes its way to Fort Madison to start construction on the new Amtrak platform at the city depot, Amtrak officials are releasing cuts to it’s Southwest Chief stops in Fort Madison.

The cuts are being labeled as temporary cuts due to decreased ridership on the heels of the COVID outbreak and Mayor Matt Mohrfeld said Thursday morning he believes they will be temporary.

“I have all confidence that ridership is going to come back up,” Mohrfeld said.

“The depot – BNSF still wants it out of their rail yard and they are fully committed. Does it mean less trains for a while, yeah.”

Amtrak currently runs the Southwest Chief daily between Chicago and Los Angeles, including stops in Fort Madison to and from. It also runs the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco with stops in Burlington. Both of those routes will be reduced to three stops per week beginning Oct. 1. Nine more other long-distance routes are also being cut to three days per week.

In addition, according to a report in the Washington Post on Tuesday, Amtrak may be looking for an extra infusion of $1.5 billion in federal funding to stay afloat.

Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, said ridership was on trajectory in the fall and winter to beat record numbers seen during the last fiscal year. But the COVID outbreak sent ridership plummeting in March and April to about 10% of normal.

“This is just a temporary change,” Magliari told Pen City Current Thursday. “Certainly a lot of people have scaled back their travel. We have Congressional funding through Sept. 30, but after that we thought it was prudent to reduce capacity until demand is back up.”

In a statement emailed Thursday morning Magliari wrote that the passenger rail system’s goal is to restore service as soon as demand warrant, hopefully by next summer.

“Due to the long-term impact of Covid-19 on ridership, Amtrak has made the decision to operate with reduced capacity through FY21. As we have already made adjustments to our Northeast Corridor (NEC) and state-supported services, the next adjustment is with our long-distance trains, which we plan to reduce to three days per week, beginning October 1, 2020. Our goal is to restore daily service on these routes as demand warrants, potentially by the summer of 2021,” he wrote.

The statement also said Amtrak expects a 20% reduction in staff and is offering a voluntary incentive package as a first step in adjusting its workforce.

The city is in the final stages of relocating the Amtrak Depot to Riverview Park. Mohrfeld said crews should be in town yet this week or the beginning of next week to start that project.

City Manager David Varley said the announcement was unwelcome news.

“It’s not news we take lightly and nothing we were hoping for,” he said. They would not guarantee would always be a stop, but they gave us verbal guarantees that the Southwest Chief would continue to run. But they couldn’t give us anything in writing.”

Varley said about $2.8 million has been spent in preparing the historical museum and depot property for the eventual relocation of the depot. The city’s contribution to the project, including the new platform construction is right around $900,000.

“You know this whole thing from day 1 has been a gamble and Amtrak has been in trouble. They’ve been going to Congress about cutting service on long distance trains,” Varley said.

“But there’s a strong group of rural representatives and groups advocating to not cut back on those as in some places it’s one of the few methods of transportation that people in sparsely populated states have.”

He said data indicated the number of people getting off trains in Fort Madison and was averaging about 17 people per day and has dwindled more in since the pandemic.

2 thoughts on “Southwest Chief to go to three days per week Oct. 1

  1. Number 1. Ridership average out and into fort madison is 3 people per day NOT 17. That’s on their own website. 2. This drain to the public coffers to the good old boy project has sent the city’s budget spiralling down unchecked. There will be MAJOR revelation with documented proof that people were kept in the dark and backroom deals were made. Hang on to your seats this next city election will be really fun and exciting.

  2. I have learned NOT to believe anything any Amtrak spokesman has to say regarding service reductions on any long distance passenger train. I say, turn ownership of the Boston to Washington DC Northeast Corridor over to the US Department of Transportation. That will save $1 BILLION a year. Look at it this way: Major airports are not the property of the city they are nearest to. They are owned by the FAA,which is part of the Department of Transportation. Turning control of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) makes financial sense in troubled economic times.

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