Now that Denver's Union Station is flourishing after a lengthy renovation, it's hard to imagine that the historic service that feeds into it –– long-distance passenger trains –– might suddenly come to a halt. But President Donald Trump's current budget proposal includes sweeping cuts in federal subsidies for train services, gutting Amtrak by $630 million. And that could endanger not just long-distance routes, but all major train service.
"These cuts are going to disproportionately affect rural and working-class communities across the West, where rails are the only alternative way to get anywhere," says Jim Souby, president of the Colorado Rail Passenger Association (ColoRail). Amtrak long-distance trains serve as regional transport for many in areas where bus services have been cut and air travel is nonexistent or unaffordable; Colorado cities and towns slated to lose all Amtrak services include Denver, Fort Morgan, Glenwood Springs, Granby, Grand Junction, La Junta, Lamar, Trinidad and Winter Park-Fraser.
Trump's proposed cuts come on the heels of several recent successes for railways in Colorado. Souby and ColoRail are particularly concerned about how the budget could affect three train lines that run through Colorado: the Southwest Chief, the California Zephyr and the Winter Park Express.
"In 2014 we raised $47 million for track repairs for the Southwest Chief to keep it in Colorado," says Souby. Earlier this year, Governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill creating the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, a measure that Souby and ColoRail helped to write. The new law will facilitate future legislation intended to create New Mexico-to-Wyoming train service along the I-25 corridor; Amtrak was hoping to soon expand the Chief to Pueblo.
And seven years after the Winter Park Ski Train stopped its decade-long run, this past season Amtrak introduced the Winter Park Express, which offered weekend service to the city-owned ski area and reported major success in ticket sales. The route did so well that Winter Park was looking into providing summer train service. Souby says he's been told that Amtrak would continue the service even if the budget cuts go through and long-distance lines are eliminated, but some rail insiders wonder if that would be possible.
"The Winter Park Express is a chartered train. Amtrak has a contracted agreement to keep it running," explains Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. While he says the service would not stop, he acknowledges that it would be more challenging if the California Zephyr quit running, "as the Express will no longer have a Denver-based crew or facilities to service the train."
Although Trump's budget cuts are specifically directed at long-distance train routes, Jim Matthews, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), thinks they'll affect the entire national network. "There are about 750 miles of state-supported Amtrak routes," he says, pointing to the Heartland Flyer that travels between Dallas and Oklahoma City. Routes like these would technically continue to operate, but "if there is no national coverage and no crews, the entire thing will likely collapse," Matthews explains.
"If there is an elevator in a thirty-story building that only runs to the eighth floor, should we stop all service?" he continues. "This proposal is like deciding to run the elevator only from the fourth to the eighth floors. What's the point of that?" Matthews believes Amtrak works best if it is part of a larger network; by losing funding for long-distance routes, which already operate on threadbare budgets, Amtrak infrastructure will suffer nationwide, and even these short-distance routes are likely to experience service losses until they cannot run.
Some train networks, like the Northeast Corridor that runs between Boston and D.C. and others in California and Texas, will fare better because of the high volume of passengers that use those routes, Matthews adds. But in 220 cities and 23 other states, train service could be wiped out completely.
"You can't do Front Range rail without long-distance rail," says Matthews. "This will suck all the money out."
Proponents of the railways note that not only would Amtrak budget cuts leave countless rural and working-class citizens without transportation, but jobs and economic opportunities would be lost. "For every dollar invested in passenger trains, communities with stations see a $3 return in economic activity," explains Matthews. "Trains are a sort of cargo service for wallets."
Opposition to Amtrak budget cuts has bipartisan support in Colorado. In April, senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet sent a letter to the chairman and ranking members of the Senate subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, urging the Trump administration not to slash Amtrak funds.
This weekend, ColoRail and NARP will continue to generate support and make their disapproval known with Rally for Trains events scheduled to take place in various cities across the nation. In Colorado, ColoRail will have hosts at Union Station on Friday, June 23, and Saturday, June 24, to hand out information on the budget cuts and fliers with lawmakers' numbers. In Grand County, rallies will be held starting at 9:45 a.m. June 24 in Winter Park-Fraser and Granby, as well as again in the afternoon; protesters plan to be present when the California Zephyr passes through in both directions.
The goal? To get the budget changed before Amtrak lines get the ax. "I'm cautiously optimistic about the future," says Souby. "We still don't know what's next."
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