No train captures the heart of the Westerner like the Southwest Chief, as much a Western icon as the cattle roundup. It's been running between Los Angeles and Chicago for over a century, and it's popular: 354,912 passengers during the last fiscal year alone, and the number is estimated to be up by 8 percent this year.
Unfortunately, it's in danger of losing its most historic and important stops, including La Junta, Colo., Santa Fe and Albuquerque, N.M., and others. That's because in some places the Chief runs on Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks that BNSF no longer uses.
At one time, the governor of New Mexico, then Bill Richardson, and two Colorado governors made noises of support for the route. We're not hearing as much support today. The Burlington Northern would be happy to keep running the traditional Chief route but runs no freight there anymore. The company needs significant money from Amtrak, or the three states of Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas to keep the track upgraded and in good shape. If it had to move the Chief to its current main line though Amarillo, Texas, we'd lose more than train service. We'd lose part of our history.
Formerly run by the Santa Fe R.R., and now by Amtrak, the Chief inspired some legendary Western amenities. The Harvey House hotels and restaurants captured the tourist in all of us. Their elegant Santa Fe style was designed by Mary Colter, whose Mimbrero china and other designs were everywhere in the Harvey Houses. That's not to mention the Harvey Girls, who gave a new name to service. Some of that magic remains at La Fonda in Santa Fe, La Posada in Winslow, Ariz., and El Tovar at the Grand Canyon.
The Chief has been called “the train of the stars.” At least a dozen movies were filmed on and around the Chief. That started with Judy Garland and Ray Bolger in 1946, and included "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and other Westerns such as "The 3:10 to Yuma." The only movie completely filmed on a train was on the Chief: "3 For Bedroom 3," starring Gloria Swanson. The Chief shows up in all of those movies, as well as in lots of trackside scenes along the line, such as Lamy and Gallup in New Mexico. I took a short trip on the Southwest Chief recently, and thought a lot about Western history on the way.
As the May rain, mixed with snow, beat on the observation car window, I sipped my drink and thought about the Old Spanish Trail we were following. I imagined 300 years of traders, cattlemen, outlaws and Indians all following what's now the train’s road bed. When we reached the top of Raton Pass, we slowed for Wooton. That's named for Uncle Billy Wooton, the man responsible for the Santa Fe winning the railroad war with the Denver and Rio Grande Western over who got to use the pass.
My trip was from Trinidad, Colo., to Lamy, N.M., where you catch a shuttle to Santa Fe. That's just a little part of the line. The Southwest Chief begins its 2,256-mile trip in Los Angeles running over what was the Santa Fe R.R. every day. Get on at Union Station in Los Angeles at 6:15 p.m., and you can imagine Harry Truman or Clark Gable rushing to check in under those old Spanish-style arches. When you get off in Chicago's Dearborn Street station, you'll have truly seen the West.
When we detrained in Trinidad, Colo., we were met with a fun demonstration. It was national train day and lots of members of ColoRail, Colorado Rail Passenger's Association, were on hand with signs and songs. Trinidad, like many towns along the route, depends on the Chief for transportation.
If we want to keep the Chief on track, we need to call on our governors and legislators. Federal spending on rail travel is a tiny drop in the bucket. Airports got $26 billion last year, highways got $43 billion, but rail got only $1.6 billion. In Europe, those figures would be just the opposite. Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas need to consider infrastructure loans, grants, or adequate funding for the Chief. In the meantime, take a ride on the Chief. It's a basic Western experience. All aboard!
Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives and writes in a restored caboose in Colorado.