Amtrak pledged to continue services along the endangered Southwest Chief passenger rail route through parts of Colorado and Kansas for two more decades Tuesday, when those states received federal transportation grants for the project. But the line’s future in New Mexico remains uncertain.
Eleven communities in southern Colorado and the state of Kansas committed $9.3 million in matching funds to secure the $12.5 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“This TIGER grant saves the Southwest Chief route in western Kansas and eastern Colorado,” said Sal Pace, chairman of the Southwest Chief Commission established by the Colorado Legislature. “New Mexico still remains a question mark.”
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari called the grant award a “huge development.” But questions about track and signal conditions from Trinidad, Colo., just north of Raton Pass, and through New Mexico remain unresolved, he said.
“This resolves the track segment that was imminently to be downgraded [through western Kansas and eastern Colorado], but the Colorado/New Mexico section still remains the subject of discussions with us,” Magliari said.
A map of tracks owned by BNSF Railway, formerly the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which owns the tracks the Southwest Chief follows, shows the train could turn south from Las Animas, Colo., to Amarillo, Texas, bypassing parts of Northern New Mexico on its current route, including the Lamy station southeast of Santa Fe.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said Tuesday that she wants the Southwest Chief to continue running in Northern New Mexico.
“We are huge supporters of the train and want it in Northern New Mexico,” the governor told The New Mexican. “It’s part of our history.”
But Martinez’s administration has expressed reluctance to commit public money to preserving the Southwest Chief’s route, citing Amtrak’s historical reliance on federal funding. She approved $150,000 in this year’s state budget to review various aspects of the proposed project.
The New Mexico study of the costs, economic development impact and legal obstacles associated with contributing funds to preserve the train's route through the state began weeks ago and is expected to be complete by November, according to a New Mexico Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
“We know we can’t take forever because the dollars are at risk,” Martinez said. “So we’ve got to make sure that we move as diligently as possible.”
In January 2016, BNSF Railway plans to stop maintaining the tracks on the Southwest Chief route. Absent that upkeep, the line would soon be unable to support travel at the 60 to 80 mph speeds required for passenger service.
In western Kansas and eastern Colorado, where freight trains share the tracks with the Southwest Chief, planners expected conditions to degrade quickly if BNSF stopped maintaining the tracks. Tuesday’s grant announcement allayed those concerns, but didn’t answer questions about track conditions in New Mexico or whether Amtrak’s course through the state will be rerouted.
The Southwest Chief currently stops at New Mexico stations in Raton, Las Vegas and Lamy. The train’s Albuquerque stop also faces possible elimination.
With future responsibility for the tracks in limbo, each of the affected states as well as Amtrak and BNSF wrestled with strategies to prevent rerouting the Southwest Chief.
Discussions centered on a five-way share of the estimated $200 million price to maintain the tracks for the next decade. New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Amtrak and BNSF each considered contributing $4 million annually for 10 years to prevent rerouting the Southwest Chief. A proposal to that effect died in the New Mexico Legislature this year, while Colorado lawmakers and the Kansas Department of Transportation advanced funding plans, including pursuing federal transportation grants.
Even in the states that benefited from the grants announced Tuesday, further spending must be approved to ensure the Southwest Chief stays on its existing route. The financial commitments from about a dozen towns and counties that reeled in federal money for the project demonstrate to state-level decision-makers that the communities along the train’s route are willing to do their part to keep the Southwest Chief alive, Pace said.
Representatives of the New Mexico Department of Transportation attended the first meeting of Colorado’s commission on the Southwest Chief, and Pace said he is optimistic that New Mexico will do its part to keep its share of the route.
For now, he said, Tuesday’s development represents the biggest step forward to keeping the train on its current tracks.
“After three years of uncertainty … this is the biggest success in the battle to save the Southwest Chief,” Pace said.
Steve Terrell contributed to this report.
Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.