A baker's dozen of us from central Colorado boarded the Amtrak Southwest Chief May 10. We were celebrating National Train Day, so called because back in 1869, a Golden Spike was pounded into a railroad tie, finally linking East and West Coasts by railroad. Lots of Americans still like to link up by train; on Train Day, railroad fans from Kansas and Colorado came to ride the famous – and endangered – Chief that links Chicago with Los Angeles.
The Chief is endangered because the U.S. House of Representatives continues to threaten Amtrak’s funding, calling it “a subsidy.” Maybe that's because Amtrak’s funding is a stand-alone line item while airlines, ships and automobiles enjoy support that is buried deep in the budget. The fact is that railroad passengers pay a greater percentage of their ticket price than do users of any other mode of travel -- 86.5 percent.
The Chief also finds itself endangered because of the BNSF railroad, which rents its tracks to the Chief. The railroad, once called the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, says it intends to drop passenger train maintenance on the line through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico in two years, unless its Amtrak funding is increased.
What we learned on Train Day was that there's huge public support in the West for passenger trains, especially for the Southwest Chief. During the short leg from Trinidad, Colorado, to Las Vegas, New Mexico, we happily waved signs saying “Save the Chief” at each stop and won thumbs-up in return. A friend who attended Train Day at the (mostly) refurbished and reopened Union Station in Denver called to say that a big crowd had gathered there to send off the California Zephyr. We also learned that trips on the Empire Builder through Montana, North Dakota and Washington have been selling out almost every day.
Train gossip moves fast up and down the line, and at Flagstaff, Arizona, surprised tour group members got out of their sleepers to find themselves greeted by a bunch of “Save the Chief” demonstrators. Cellphones were buzzing and we also heard that the lovely old restored Union Station in Los Angeles had quite a contingent on hand. The Chief has been running between L.A. and Chicago every day since 1938, and enthusiastic riders want to keep it on track.
Among the supporters who greeted us were the mayors of the towns of La Junta, Lamar and Trinidad in southern Colorado, as well as the mayor of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The Chief is these towns’ only form of public transit, and they make good use of it. Several folks were there to advocate for a Chief stop in Pueblo, Colorado, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and some reminded us that tourism flows there on the Chief via the Lamy station.
The biggest crowd was at Raton, New Mexico, where over a hundred people on the platform waved “Save the Chief” placards. They’d invited a Western band, gave out Popsicles, and got half the train outside to join them on the platform. A couple of the costumes there were notable, including a train-riding Santa Claus, and a gun-totin' “train mama.” When we pulled into Raton on our way back to Trinidad that afternoon, they still were there; some a bit wobbly, but still cheering.
The mayors reminded us that a $15 million “Tiger grant” has been applied for from the U.S. Department of Transportation. It would upgrade some 60 miles of track to keep up 80 mph passenger train standards. So far, $250,000 in matching funds has been raised by 10 small communities along the line, and in Trinidad, a town of 10,000, the construction of a passenger station is going forward. Other good signs abound. Colorado has just passed a bill setting up a commission to work with Kansas and New Mexico to find a way to help save the Chief, and both the state of Kansas and BNSF have pledged support toward the grant.
The popular Chief is nearly full most days, yet passengers don't seem to mind the waiting list for the dining car, and the bar/observation car does a good business. Trains seem to inspire diehard loyalty in those who use them, and once again National Train Day brought out their faithful, enthusiastic fans. The rolling party on the Chief wasn't bad either. All aboard!
Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column syndication service of High Country News. He lives in a retired caboose in central Colorado.