Photo of Amtrak for Sierra Club article on changes to Amtrak service in New Mexico

By Norma McCallan, Chapter vice chair

You may remember that the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which owns much of the tracks in New Mexico that the Southwest Chief travels daily between Los Angeles and Chicago, announced it would not renew its contract with Amtrak, due Dec. 31, to maintain the tracks since there is now little freight traffic along this section. This would seriously affect New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas, since the tracks and signaling devices are in serious need of repair and soon won’t be able to handle passenger trains.

A coalition of Amtrak supporters, including local governments, worked out a solution in which Amtrak, the three affected states and BNSF would each put in $4 million a year for 10 years to make the repairs. Colorado and Kansas both agreed, but the funding bill languished in the New Mexico Legislature. A new plan seeks a federal grant that requires significant funding commitments from all communities and counties served along the route.

New Mexico’s Transportation Department did commit $1 million (which Gov. Martinez recently supported), contingent upon local dollar commitments. Studies have shown that the Southwest Chief brings in significant economic benefits to the counties and towns along its route, and there has been widespread support from them, including Colfax County and the city of Las Vegas. Santa Fe County Commission committed $12,500, and a resolution for that amount is pending in Santa Fe’s City Council.

BNSF has agreed to keep the line open. Unfortunately, the recent Philadelphia Amtrak derailment tragedy provided an occasion for Congressional leaders who don’t support railroads to reduce Amtrak’s 2016 funding, while others saw the lack of Positive Train Control signals at the accident site as another example of Congressional neglect of passenger rail, as the Chief faces other hurdles in the Midwest because of lack of money to update tracks to comply with safety laws.

The latest hurdle for the Southwest Chief was publicized in a recent New Mexican article noting that two small host railroads Amtrak uses on its short journey across Missouri were mandated by a 2008 law to install this Positive Train Control technology by the end of this year. But they say they cannot afford to, so unless an alternative solution is found that impasse could terminate the Southwest Chief. Happily our Senator Tom Udall sits on the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee – he does support transit rail, not only for its local economic benefits but because it is 33% more energy efficient per passenger mile than cars, 48% more energy efficient than light trucks, and 11% more than commercial aviation. An email or call to his office to thank him his continued support of Amtrak and help in seeking a solution to the Missouri problem and to our City Council to support their $12,500 local share for the TIGER grant would be helpful.

Feature photo from Flickr.com pacificsurfliner

Southwest Chief gets lifelines