What’s the future of N.M.’s passenger rail service?

The Southwest Chief leaves the Lamy station en route to Albuquerque in March 2012. The Southwest Chief’s northern route through New Mexico has been contentious while both the Colorado and Kansas legislatures have allocated the funds to keep the train rolling through their states. New Mexican file photo

On May 9, Colorado approved $2.5 million for the establishment of the Southwest Chief and Front Range Rail Commission to extend the Southwest Chief passenger train service from Trinidad into Pueblo and elsewhere up the Front Range.

This commission replaces the older Southwest Chief Commission, a three-state coalition consisting of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. The group was formed to save the Southwest Chief passenger train service on its northerly route through these three states from Los Angeles to Chicago.

Recently, New Mexico’s Colfax County was awarded a $16 million grant from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program to keep the Southwest Chief in operation through its county on a stretch of private rails owned by BNSF Railway. This stretch of rail service is part of the larger Madrid-to-Raton BNSF railbed that Gov. Bill Richardson agreed to purchase from BNSF to keep the Southwest Chief serving a northern route through New Mexico rather than heading east out of Albuquerque. Gov. Susana Martinez blocked the purchase of this stretch of track after she came into office.

As a result, the northern route through New Mexico has been contentious while both the Colorado and Kansas legislatures have allocated the funds to keep the Chief rolling through their states. According to Amtrak records, the Chief operates at 63.5 percent capacity on its daily run from Los Angeles to Chicago. Amtrak considers 65 percent ridership to be a sold-out train. As you can see, Chief ridership is not a problem.

In light of the commitment of the Colorado and Kansas legislatures to continue funding Southwest Chief passenger rail service through their states, it is imperative that New Mexico continue to support the Chief’s northern route through our state. I, for one, am a great supporter of the Chief and its service to our northern communities. They depend on it for transport to elsewhere.

Also, in the view of the new Amtrak CEO, Richard Anderson, the Southwest Chief is under scrutiny and could either be rerouted through Amarillo, Texas, because of the BNSF rail dilemma or discontinued altogether. That would be a tragedy.

Where does our Legislature stand on this issue? Why can’t it commit to purchasing the right-of-way over BNSF rails?

Jessie Vosti is a retiree who has lived in Taos for 14 years and is a fan of our nation’s long-distance trains.