Many Reasons to Save Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Amtrak’s long distance trains have been under rather continuous attack for a long time. Usually it comes from members of Congress who object to the fact that these passenger trains receive a modest federal subsidy. So far, passenger rail advocates like NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, have managed to fend off efforts in Congress to weaken or even kill Amtrak.

 But now a number of towns and cities along the route of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief are facing the very real possibility that they will lose their daily train service. The problem is a stretch of track owned by BNSF running for roughly 200 miles through parts of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. The condition of that track has deteriorated and the Chief has to reduce speed while passing over that section. That causes problems with the Chief’s schedule and will eventually affect ridership.

The problem is simple: No one wants to pay to upgrade that stretch of track, estimated at something like $200 million over ten years. BNSF doesn’t run a lot of freights over that track and their trains run at slower speeds anyway. And God knows Amtrak hasn’t got that kind of money. State and local governments are strapped, too.

But unless someone takes ownership of the problem, there appears to be only two “solutions”. The first would be to re-route the train, which would mean by-passing a number of cities and towns, including Lamy, New Mexico, which is the stop serving Santa Fe, the state capital. The other would be to simply terminate the Chief altogether.

NARP and similar organizations working at the state level have launched a campaign to alert and rally the public in affected cities along those 200 miles.  Happily, local governments and civic organizations such as the Chambers of Commerce have responded. That train is a lifeline for their communities, in many cases the only public transportation available to their citizens. They want and need that train. And they will fight to keep it.

The Chairman of NARP’s board of directors, Bob Stewart, was recently in Garden City, Kansas, one of the cities that would be affected should the Chief be re-routed or terminated. While there, he was approached by representatives of the local hospital who told him that they frequently refer patients to bigger, more sophisticated medical facilities in cities like Kansas City or Chicago. And those patients travel there on the Southwest Chief! It’s just one more reason of many why Amtrak’s long distance network must be maintained. And, in a rational if ideal world, expanded.

In the meantime, the Southwest Chief continues to run once a day in each direction between Chicago and Los Angeles, following the route of the famous Super Chief. And, for many miles, the original Santa Fe Trail is clearly visible from the train. Allowing the Southwest Chief, guardian of that heritage, to cease its daily run should be unthinkable.