Railroad West: Colorado Lawmakers Weigh In on the Southwest Chief

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Amtrak's Southwest Chief pulls into the Lamar station.
Credit Maggie Spencer / KRCC
Amtrak's Southwest Chief pulls into the Lamar station.

Colorado’s Amtrak rail line in southeastern Colorado is in need of major repairs. Upgrades to the track are expected to be in the millions, and a measure is moving through the statehouse to try and find ways to finance the project and save the rail line.  It’s part of a multi-state effort. 

The Southwest Chief line runs through the towns of Lamar, La Junta, and Trinidad. It’s part of a longer passenger route stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles.

“The train will continue to slow down—the train is already operating more slowly than it did 5 years ago through there,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

The train runs on older tracks owned by the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railway. A plan is currently in the works for Amtrak, BNSF – and the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas -- to split the 200 million dollar cost of upgrading and maintaining the tracks. Colorado’s portion would be $40 million.

“There are some state funds that could be used,” said Representative Leroy Garcia (D- Pueblo).

Democratic senator Leroy Garcia of Pueblo is sponsoring House Bill 1161 [pdf]. It would create a commission to study the issue over the next year. Garcia also wants the commission to look at adding a stop in Pueblo and possibly Walsenberg.

“We look at this as an avenue to continue to advocate for the Southwest Chief. There’s more of a regional and state perspective to how this will be solved and I think that’s a benefit because there’s not one solution that’s going to solve this for everyone,” said Garcia.

The bill has bi-partisan support and easily cleared the house with little debate. Republican senator Larry Crowder is a co-sponsor of the measure. He says keeping the line in Colorado is critical…

“The grist of the thing now Amtrak is attempting to re-route that. It would be taken completely out of southeastern Colorado. I’m of the opinion if we lose this Amtrak line we’ll never get it back.”

That’s something Amtrak doesn’t want to do, but officials say it may have no other choice but to redirect the route to existing tracks in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. And while there’s strong support in Colorado for preserving the line, finding money for it is another issue. Some lawmakers say Amtrak should foot the entire bill.

The current route needing repairs is shown in blue, while the proposed alternate route is in yellow.
Credit Southwest Chief Routing; Ray Lang, Chief, State Government Relations Nov 11, 2013 / Amtrak
The current route needing repairs is shown in blue, while the proposed alternate route is in yellow.

“I think it would decades to make that thing viable and I think there’s probably better ways the state of Colorado can spend that money,” said Representative Don Coram (R-Montrose) who isn’t convinced the line will ever be sustainable. 

Republican representative Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling agrees.

“It’s always a concern to me when we try to help and subsidize an already losing proposition not only from the national level but the state level, that’s a concern that we may continue to put money into a sinking hole,” said Sonnenberg.

A study from Colorado State University Pueblo shows that the Southwest Chief line serves about 13,000 passengers in Colorado each year, half of whom are from out of state. There’s also freight on the line. Governor John Hickenlooper says freight could help pay for some of the costs.

“But we also don’t know how much other freight is going to be on that line, in other words whose going to share the maintenance costs and what are the maintenance costs.”

Hickenlooper says the railway is hugely important to southern Colorado and he’s open to finding a funding solution.

“I suspect it will be a big number, we realize the value this creates but we have to be responsible, no-one gave us a blank check over here.”

And if Colorado, New Mexico or Kansas fails to come up with their share of the money the whole proposal falls apart. Colorado’s bill to create a commission now heads to the state senate. New Mexico officials have set aside money to study the legal and economic benefits of maintaining the line, but the Governor there has been skeptical. Kansas is also looking at the issue.