They Should Oughta Know Better!
A few years back, the U.S. Congress passed a law that said individual states had to step up and
provide the money to keep Amtrak trains running on routes under 750 miles … routes in or passing through their states.
It was another slippery and craven act by that slippery and craven bunch.
The result has been totally predictable: passenger rail service suddenly became jeopardized in several states: the Hoosier State trains connecting Indianapolis and Chicago, for example. And, just recently, the highly successful Cascades service running from Eugene to Portland in Oregon. With little warning, governors and state legislatures were confronted with an immediate need for an unexpected expenditure of many millions of dollars. Of course they balked! You would have to be an idiot not to know that was coming.
It is inconceivable that Congress didn’t know this was going to happen. For some of those people, it’s a way to perhaps get rid of Amtrak without having to take any blame for it. For others, it illustrates a scary lack of understanding of human nature … of what was bound to happen.
The near-death experience of the Southwest Chief offers a perfect example of how that neat and tidy pass-the-buck approach can fall apart. The future of that venerable train came into doubt when BNSF, the host railroad, announced that it had no further interest in maintaining several hundred miles of track at a level permitting speeds suitable (and necessary) for passenger trains. That left three states—Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico—with the prospect of having to pony up an estimated $200 million over ten years. And if they didn’t, Amtrak said, the Southwest Chief would either be discontinued or rerouted, meaning it would no longer pass through those states.
After a lot of discussion, Kansas and Colorado agreed to come up with their share. But New Mexico’s governor, Republican Susana Martinez, did not. And for a while it looked like the Southwest Chief would be history because the taxpayers of Kansas and Colorado objected, asking the obvious and completely legitimate question: Why the hell should we pay for New Mexico’s share of this project?
And that’s the perfect textbook example of why there are projects and services that must be provided and paid for by the federal government. Can you imagine if the every-state-on-its-own theory had been in effect when the Interstate Highway system was conceived? Or the air traffic control system?
By the way, one of the Chief’s stops is Lamy, New Mexico. That’s where you get off if you’re going to Santa Fe. In other words, New Mexico’s governor was willing to eliminate passenger rail service to the capital city of her own state. Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed and the Southwest Chief will continue to operate on its traditional route.
And a good thing that is, too, because the Chief provides essential public transportation for literally hundreds of communities along a 2300-mile route through eight states. All during the Golden Age of Rail Travel, the Santa Fe operated the famous Chief and Super Chief streamliner trains on this exact route. And for many miles even today, you can look out the window of the Southwest Chief and see what’s left of the original Santa Fe Trail running along side. I’d say that’s something worth saving!