Southwest Chief

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief pulls into the Lamy station in January 2014. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

As early spring softens into the tourist season, one of New Mexico’s prized connections to the Midwest and Pacific Coast appears safe at last.

Amtrak will stick with its existing route of the Southwest Chief passenger train that makes stops in the New Mexico towns of Raton, Las Vegas, Lamy and Albuquerque, a company spokesman said in an interview. This ends more than two years of fear and uncertainty in Northern New Mexico’s smaller communities about whether Amtrak would alter the route and leave them without a stream of visitors with money to spend.

Colorado and Kansas moved aggressively last year to secure a federal grant and to allocate money for repairs on their sections of the Southwest Chief tracks. This meant those two states would be able to continue accommodating higher-speed passenger trains on the Southwest Chief’s daily run between Chicago and Los Angeles.

New Mexico’s hold on its section of the route was much more tenuous. Gov. Susana Martinez in 2014 authorized $150,000 for a study of the Southwest Chief’s costs and benefits. Martinez was less willing than governors in Colorado and Kansas to commit to the project because she said Amtrak historically was the beneficiary of federal subsidies.

But now, even without New Mexico obtaining a grant or allocating funding directly for the Southwest Chief line, Amtrak is convinced that all three states have a sound plan in place for upkeep of the tracks.

Just as important, a Jan. 1, 2016, deadline for funding the project has been lifted, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said in a telephone interview.

“We are making progress. There is no imminent cutoff date. … We do not want to move this train to another route,” he said.

BNSF Railway owns the tracks that the Southwest Chief traverses in western Kansas, Colorado and Northern New Mexico. It had told Amtrak and the three states that it wouldn’t maintain the tracks after the end of this year.

But Magliari and state Rep. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos, said the new plan contains no timetable because all the states now have a strategy to cover costs on their part of the route. BNSF Railway’s regional spokesman declined comment Saturday until speaking with executives in his company.

Tom Church, Cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Transportation, said his agency is devising ways to pay for repairs in New Mexico.

“We are coordinating an effort with the Southwest Chief Coalition for the Northern New Mexico cities and counties to develop a TIGER grant through the federal Transportation Department,” Church’s staff said in an email. The TIGER grant acronym stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.

Garden City, Kan., was the lead applicant for a group of governments that received a TIGER grant last year to help pay for repairs on sections of track for the Southwest Chief. Twelve communities in Colorado, four in Kansas, plus Amtrak, BNSF Railway and the Kansas Department of Transportation contributed a total of more than $9 million to secure the $12.5 million federal grant, said Sal Pace, chairman of the Southwest Chief Commission in Colorado.

New Mexico legislators ended their 60-day session this month without allocating any money for repairs of the tracks. But Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the $6.23 billion state budget contains money for local economic development projects.



Smith, D-Deming, said $37.5 million designated for economic development programs could give Martinez’s administration the money needed to begin Southwest Chief maintenance or to help obtain a TIGER grant in collaboration with the other two states.

One estimate early on was that Amtrak, BNSF Railway and the states would have to spend $40 million each across 10 years to improve the tracks.

Pace said his state government’s share had already been cut to $8.9 million. The federal grant and BNSF Railway’s agreement to handle maintenance for a large section of track in Colorado reduced the expense, he said.

Church’s staff said BNSF Railway next month will have an updated cost estimate for maintaining the line in New Mexico.

The next application for a TIGER grant for the Southwest Chief project will include Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico, Pace said.

“Time is of the essence because we’re told the grant might not be around next year,” Pace said.

Amtrak’s commitment to keeping intact the existing Southwest Chief route was welcome news in Northern New Mexico.

“That’s terrific. It’s been a wonderful thing for Santa Fe because a lot of people don’t travel by plane,” said Sam Latkin, a board member of the Lamy Railroad & History Museum.

Raton Mayor Sandra Mantz said Amtrak is important to her town and especially to the nearby Philmont Scout Ranch. Established in 1938, Philmont bills itself as the Boy Scouts of America’s largest national high country base.

“It attracts Scouts from all over the country,” Mantz said.

Amtrak says about 22,000 Boy Scouts travel each summer to the Philmont Scout Ranch. About 20 percent of them arrive in Raton by train. This accounts for half the business at the Raton station.

In all, about 126,000 boardings and departures by Southwest Chief riders are made each year in New Mexico, Amtrak says. The company says it employs 57 residents of New Mexico, and that their total wages were about $5.2 million last year.

Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com. Follow his Ringside Seat column and blog at santafenewmexican.com.

(12) comments

Jeff Carr

Thank your Rep. Bobby Gonzales!

Joseph Hempfling

But the latest example of how we work SO HARD to be a third world State ! And another missed chance to be proactive on an issue that effects us all. NO Way
were we to miss out on showing our inferiority complex by taking a positive step
and say YES to something that not only made sense but runs through our very
back yard. SAD SAD SAD !

Mike Palaima

Ms Tejana not supporting Amtrack is a typical move, given her track record...pun intended. They did not contribute in any way to her governorship. She seems to only care for rural New Mexicans, when they have oil or gas she can sell to the
Texans, or take away their rights to protest such activity, which makes it easier. Why support a train that is more than likely, a system precursor of future transportation, providing a smaller carbon footprint per mile. That kind of thinking is proactive, in an area that is not ever approached, philosophically, much less practically.

Warren Walther

As I read some of the comments, I think some may think that if they don't use a public service or system, they should have no obligation to help fund it. Do they also believe that every dollar they pay for insurance goes only to pay for their own accident or claim? One can debate the efficiency of the current passenger rail system, but that is a far different discussion than the discussion regarding the need for such a system. Without our tax dollars, few, if any airlines could survive. Does anyone still believe that fuel taxes still fully pay for construction and maintenance of roads and bridges? If we are going to have that argument, we can't cherry pick only the services or systems we don't use or like.

Steve Salazar

Actually the real issue is that BNSF, and these tracks, are owned by the BILLIONAIRE Warren Buffett, who wants US to pay to maintain HIS tracks.

Kim Runyan

Amtrak is an American leech. It does not pay for itself and should go they way of all things that are not self sustaining. I am tired of paying for all the people who ride through my tax dollars. Wealth redistribution on steriods going on how many decades in America? If I can't make my mortgage payment what happens? I have to move into something I can afford. I pay my way so should the riders of every transit system.

Mark Sanders

Then we should shut down the aviation system and the highways because they don't pay for themselves either.

Steve Salazar

Why doesn't BNSF maintain THEIR OWN TRACKS?

Mike Johnson

Because those tracks are not used for any BNSF trains anymore. All freight was moved off that spur years ago. It is solely for Amtrak and Old Bill's little train. BTW, the Chief also stops in Springer for the scouts and locals.

Steve Salazar

I'll bet they don't just let the boondoggle and AMTRAK run for free. They need to take that track rental and use it for maintenance, or to pay Buffett's secretary more.

Mike Johnson

And if it hadn't been for Susie, the state would now own that white elephant of tracks from Raton to Lamy. Old Bill made the deal to buy it for his little train, committed money we badly needed elsewhere, but Susie negotiated a good deal to get our deposits back and saddle BNSF with the costly, mostly unused tracks.

Michael Numan

This whole problem is a good example of why NM lags behind other states in economic development. A Republican Governor who presumably leans toward state's rights argues that Amtrak already receives subsidies from the Feds, so she is less willing to help the development of our state and its railways by committing state funds. This kind of behavior will always keep us undeveloped and wondering why people and businesses are not attracted to NM.

Welcome to the discussion.

Thank you for joining the conversation on Santafenewmexican.com. Please familiarize yourself with the community guidelines. Avoid personal attacks: Lively, vigorous conversation is welcomed and encouraged, insults, name-calling and other personal attacks are not. No commercial peddling: Promotions of commercial goods and services are inappropriate to the purposes of this forum and can be removed. Respect copyrights: Post citations to sources appropriate to support your arguments, but refrain from posting entire copyrighted pieces. Be yourself: Accounts suspected of using fake identities can be removed from the forum.