Historic Amtrak train could be rerouted away from Lamy

The Southwest Chief leaves the Lamy station en route to Albuquerque in March, 2012. Both stops, as well as those in Raton and Las Vegas, face possible elimination. Clyde Mueller/New Mexican file photo

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief might no longer run through Lamy — the stop for train passengers heading in and out of Santa Fe since 1879 — unless New Mexico taxpayers help upgrade and maintain portions of the rail line.

Otherwise, the historic passenger route between Chicago and Los Angeles, started in 1936 as the Super Chief, might be rerouted through Wichita, Kan., and Amarillo, Texas.

From Amarillo, the rerouted passenger train could follow an existing track west into Albuquerque, even though that would mean sharing it with more than 100 freight trains a day on one of the busiest railroad freight routes in the country, New Mexico legislators were told Tuesday.

The potential change in passenger rail service — which Amtrak says will come if it can’t reach a new agreement by 2016 regarding track conditions — has communities in northeastern New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas pressing for a cost-sharing agreement among the three states, plus Amtrak and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.

Among those appearing before the Legislature’s Transportation Infrastructure Revenue Subcommittee to endorse state funding for the track were Raton Mayor Pro-Tem Chris Candelario, Mora County Commission Chairman John Olivas, Las Vegas Mayor Alfonso Ortiz and Santa Fe Mayor David Coss.

Ray Lang, Amtrak’s senior director of national/state relations, said his corporation’s official position is that it would like to keep the Southwest Chief on the same route because of its historic relationships with communities there.

But, he said, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which owns most of the track, plans to downgrade a portion of it between Newton, Kan., and La Junta, Colo., by the first of 2016, which would mean trains couldn’t go faster than 30 mph. That’s enough for BNSF’s freight trains, but less than half the 79 mph needed for Amtrak passenger trains, he said.

Lang said BNSF also has made it clear that it doesn’t plan to continue maintaining the track from Trinidad, Colo., to Albuquerque because it doesn’t use that stretch at all. The only trains using that section are the Southwest Chief’s two runs a day, in either direction, and the New Mexico Rail Runner Express’ dozen commuter trains a day between Albuquerque and the point near La Bajada where the Rail Runner leaves the main track to follow Interstate 25 into Santa Fe.

BNSF has indicated that it wants to share the costs of maintaining the deteriorating sections of track with Amtrak and the states of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. The five-way split would mean about $4 million a year for 10 years from each party, which Lang called “the best solution here for the public.”

Joe Faust, a BNSF spokesman, said the company has received a formal request from Amtrak concerning such a deal but is aware of what has been suggested to the states. He said BNSF has made no decision on whether such an arrangement is feasible.

Lang said Amtrak can’t afford the full cost of the track improvements itself, and he said it’s unlikely Congress will provide the extra money.

All of the county and municipal officials at Tuesday’s meeting in Santa Fe as well as most of the senators and representatives on the subcommittee favored the expenditure, citing the benefits to the economies of communities along the route.

No one from the Governor’s Office spoke at Tuesday’s hearing, but Gov. Susana Martinez reportedly has been cold to the idea of spending state money on the railroad route. She blocked a plan put in place by former Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration to buy about 200 miles of BNSF track between Lamy and the Colorado border.

“From New Mexico’s perspective, this is a cheap proposal,” state Sen. Timothy Keller, D-Bernalillo, said of the proposed state subsidy. “This price tag, I think, is very low and very feasible.”

In addition to the New Mexico communities north of Albuquerque whose historic passenger train stations would become obsolete, Amtrak would no longer serve Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City in Kansas, and Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad in Colorado if the Southwest Chief rout is changed.

“Rerouting trains is very painful, very difficult and very expensive to do,” Amtrak’s Lang said Tuesday. “It’s our corporate position to try and find a way to stay on this route.”

Colfax County Commissioner Bill Sauble told lawmakers that “The continuation of the passenger train through Northern New Mexico is vital to the economic well-being of each of the counties, cities and towns in the region.

In New Mexico, there’s an estimated $29 million annual economic impact from spending related to train passengers.

During a recent federal fiscal year, more than 12,500 passengers got on or off the Southwest Chief at the Lamy depot, and nearly 125,000 passengers boarded or disembarked the Chief in New Mexico during that time.

This article has been amended to reflect the following correction:

The name of the mayor of Las Vegas is Alfonso Ortiz

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Tom Sharpe at 986-3080 or tsharpe@sfnewmexican.com.