Struggling Southwest Chief Amtrak Line Wins Another Reprieve

(Photo: Courtesy of Steve Wilson)
<p>The Southwest Chief rail line, just east of Trinidad, Colo. The Sangre de Cristo mountain range looms in the distance.</p>
Photo: Amtrak Southwest Chief
The Southwest Chief rail line, just east of Trinidad, Colo. The Sangre de Cristo mountain range looms in the distance.

Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas achieved another small victory in a longstanding battle over trying to save the historic Southwest Chief Amtrak train route that runs through their states.

The Southwest Chief runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, with major stops at Kansas City, Albuquerque and Flagstaff. The stops in Colorado include Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad.

In June of this year, Amtrak announced plans to shutter service from Albuquerque to Dodge City, Kan., citing millions of dollars in repairs needed along the 219-mile stretch that includes Colorado as justification, while offering a charter bus service as a replacement.

U.S. senators from states along the route, including Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet, both of Colorado, fought against that proposal and found grant funding by amending a major transportation bill and giving Amtrak funds to pay for fixes. The money, $16 million from a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant, means about three-quarters of the money needed for track upgrades for the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route have been secured.

While this seems to have stymied changes for the time being, the train line still has an uncertain future. Amtrak has only agreed to run the train as-is through September 2019 and Scot Naparstek, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief operating officer was reluctant to say whether or not the company would match the $3 million amount needed to secure the grant funding in a senate committee hearing.

John Sutherland, the city administrator for Lamar, says that taking the train always is like pulling the plug on his community.

“This is the connection for a small, rural, agricultural community to the rest of the world quite honestly. This line runs from Chicago to Los Angeles and it is an important connection for all of us down here,” Sutherland said. “You start draining those resources off and draining off the rail connection with the rest of the world and pretty soon you’re just a bunch of old folks out here living on the prairie. Unless you drive you’re not going to have access to any place. So yeah, it’s important it’s very important to us.”

Sutherland said he isn’t concerned about the town losing railroad jobs, but neighboring La Junta will be.

"We actually run an active train railroad station here. Amtrak used to have a person that greeted the train and since then we’ve basically picked that up. We have a Colorado Welcome Center here in our historic train depot," Sutherland said. "So it is a hub for us."

Amtrak officials were set to meet with Southwest Chief stakeholders over the weekend to talk more about the train’s future.

What’s really gone for people like Sutherland is the trust they’ve built with Amtrak over the years. He believes that connection was lost when former CEO Joe Boardman retired.

"We had an excellent relationship with Joe Boardman to a place where you could trust that Amtrak was committed to keeping the service," Sutherland said. "But now it feels almost like throwing dollars down a well-hole. I’m not convinced that they’re gonna keep the thing open no matter what we do."