The Santa Fe Southern Railroad now has three new engineers.
Violet Crown cinema owner Bill Banowsky, novelist and screenwriter George R.R. Martin and NDI New Mexico co-founder Catherine Oppenheimer have bought the decades-old railway and trains along the 18-mile spur line from Santa Fe to Lamy.
“We want to breathe new life into this old train,” Banowsky said Monday.
Oppenheimer said the trio did not want to see the financially challenged railway fall into further disrepair or just fade away. “There’s something about train travel that brings you back to a time that we assume was a simpler, more community-based time, long before the internet, before air travel, even before television,” she said.
Oppenheimer added the trio plan to ultimately provide “a super-fun train experience that builds in the history and culture and natural beauty of New Mexico.”
Plans not only include repairing the track and bridges between Santa Fe and Lamy, where a small depot still awaits passengers on the Amtrak line that travels from Chicago to Los Angeles and back, but to provide an array of entertaining arts and cultural events on train excursions to Lamy and at nearby stops.
If all goes well, they hope to renew a deal with Amtrak that would keep the Southwest Chief line stopping at Lamy and perhaps restore a now-vacant position for a ticket agent at the site.
Banowsky and Oppenheimer said the Amtrak lease expires at the end of June. They said they feel confident they can renew the lease and allow a brewpub that opened in the Lamy depot to operate as well.
Oppenheimer and Banowsky said they began discussing the idea of purchasing the railroad, which ran excursions to Lamy and back for decades, more than a year ago. Together with Martin, they pooled resources to buy the debt various shareholders and mortgage-holders of the railway held with an eye toward saving the historic locomotives and railroad cars on the spur route and turning the investment into a rolling arcade of arts, entertainment and history.
No one involved with the purchase was willing to say how much the three investors paid, but Oppenheimer said it will cost “in the millions” just to repair the track and bridges between Santa Fe and Lamy and restore some of the roughly 20 train cars, which date to the 1920s.
Among the trio’s ideas for keeping the trains rolling and full of adventurers: an opera car, an escape room, a speakeasy-type bar, live music and train trips that stop somewhere between Santa Fe and Lamy and allow passengers to get off and enjoy a performance or gaze at the stars with an astronomer on hand.
Banowsky and Oppenheimer said they envision a holiday train trip with a Santa’s village set up somewhere along the route — but not in Lamy proper, Oppenheimer said.
They hope to rent the operation out to television and movie projects that want to use it and possibly offer some of the eight acres of property they now own in Lamy as a temporary movie location.
The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway reached Lamy in 1879. Though it had originally been planned to roll into Santa Fe, railroad executives and engineers said it would be too difficult to build a main track to the capital city because of the steep grade in the mountainous environment, so they settled for a spur line.
The first Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe train to reach Santa Fe arrived in February 1880. The train served the city for well over a century.
In 1991, the successor to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway announced it was closing the spur. The Santa Fe Southern Railway formed to buy the right of way, buildings and equipment for the short-line operation.
The next year, it began running passenger excursion trains to Lamy. Those trains kept running through fall 2012, when money ran out.
Karl Ziebarth, an independent transportation consultant who has been part of the Santa Fe Southern Railway since the late 1990s, confirmed Monday that Banowsky, Martin and Oppenheimer are the new owners. He said he is happy the organization is “in good hands.”
Martin, best known for the book series that begins with A Game of Thrones and for running the Jean Cocteau Cinema in downtown Santa Fe, could not be reached for comment.
Banowsky and Oppenheimer said they hope to have the operation running sometime in 2022. She said they are applying for federal grants through the U.S. Department of Transportation and working on a capital campaign to raise funds for repair and restoration work.
Oppenheimer acknowledged COVID-19 may throw their timeline off somewhat. “People want to invest in this, but it’s a timing issue,” she said. “Originally we wanted to get going on this as soon as possible, it was ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.’
“Now it’s like maybe we should just kick back for three to four months and then start up. A lot of it will have to do with our timing.”