Many hopes rest on the Udall-Moran Southwest Chief Route Stabilization Project amendment to the 2019 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies appropriations bill.
If the amendment survives a conference committee and the appropriations bill is signed by President Donald Trump, Amtrak executives will be hard-pressed to contrive reasons to substitute bus for rail service on the route between Albuquerque and Dodge City, Kan.
We are honored by the bipartisan leadership shown by Sens. Martin Heinrich, Tom Udall, Jerry Moran, Pat Roberts, Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner in offering this amendment. This is a win for U.S. passenger rail travelers and a win for the economies dotted along this historic passenger rail route, but the battle continues.
Amtrak continues to downgrade services such as diner car offerings that attract high-revenue sleeping car patrons. Amtrak may later target other inter-regional services, such as the thrice-weekly Sunset Limited (serving Southern New Mexico) and Cardinal routes with its failure to downgrade the Southwest Chief. Time is of the essence to protect the national passenger rail system, including onboard services U.S. travelers have come to expect.
With the president’s signature, Amtrak should immediately begin a program to refresh and replace tired and threadbare Western equipment, or this victory will be short lived. All too often, Amtrak trains are pulled by freight locomotives when Amtrak equipment fails. Some passenger equipment used on the Southwest Chief dates to the late 1970s, with the newest delivered 22 years ago. The time for an overhaul is long overdue.
Still, saving the Southwest Chief and refreshing equipment is not enough. All levels of government must look anew at the rail line between Newton, Kan., and Dalies, N.M. They must embrace the need for service growth over this existing infrastructure.
This underutilized yet strategic segment of national transportation infrastructure must host new multiservice trains, or what has been accomplished? For example, a proposed Colorado Front Range route linking the Denver area to Albuquerque would further polish rails where only the Southwest Chief runs today. The long-overdue Heartland Flyer expansion would link the Kansas City and Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan areas for the first time since 1979.
We are learning as a society that the automobile is not as freeing as once considered. Young and old are giving passenger rail service a second chance. A reversal of the downward spiral in services can revive small to midsized economies such as in Las Vegas, N.M., and Raton. Passenger rail service is vital to the burgeoning heritage tourism industry in Lamy and Las Vegas, spurred by Allan Affeldt’s restoration efforts at the Legal Tender Restaurant, and La Castañeda and Plaza Hotels. The color of tourism money is still green, and it should be carried in part by passenger trains to New Mexico destinations.
Evan Stair is president of Passenger Rail Kansas and Passenger Rail Oklahoma, groups dedicated to promoting the passenger rail experience.