Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Looking Ahead

What a week! We have accomplished so much, but have a lot more ground to cover ahead. Since we returned from our ride on the Southwest Chief, we've been working on transcribing the interviews we collected and are getting prepared for our upcoming field trips.
This Thursday we will be meeting with Amtrak Media Relations Manager Marc Magliari in Denver to talk about what's happening at the core of the company. Magliari is usually stationed in Chicago, so when we heard he was going to be close by, we jumped at the opportunity to interview him in person. 
After that, the next step will be for Maggie and me to take individual trips to a Colorado town that is on the Southwest Chief line-- one that would not longer be a stop if the train is rerouted through Oklahoma and Texas. I have chosen to visit La Junta and Maggie has chosen to visit Trinidad. We are working on setting up interviews with city officials and county commissioners so that we can learn more about how these towns economically and socially interact with the Southwest Chief, and how they might be effected if the Southwest Chief no longer chugged through them. 
Stay tuned! In the meantime, here are a couple more shots from our journey from Lamar to Raton.

It was a clear morning at the depot in Lamar.

Empty storefronts at dusk in Raton, NM.

It's peaceful between meals in the Dining Car on the Southwest Chief. 

Taken from the depot in Raton, NM.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Today in 'The Pueblo Chieftain': A Letter of Support

As a frequent Amtrak passenger, I’d like to thank The Pueblo Chieftain for its support and leadership in retaining Amtrak’s Southwest Chief in Southeastern Colorado. 

This famous Chicago to Los Angeles train, not unlike Amtrak’s other long-distance trains, reliably serves rural America as it simultaneously connects major population centers. Americans cherish their freedom of mobility, but for many, especially those who are not urban dwellers, that freedom is being squeezed. Bus services largely have been withdrawn (unprofitable), air services are scarce and very costly and highways can be dangerous, intimidating, congested and slippery as we once again observe this winter. That leaves the rail option — a safe, comfortable, relaxed and weather-resistant alternative that also happens to be the most fuel-efficient form of transportation available.

Amtrak, “America’s Railroad,” is but a fraction of what it should be. Even though ridership increases every year and efficiency improves, our dysfunctional Congress fails to allocate sufficient financial resources for major growth and service improvements that would lead to yet more economy of scale. So those communities that have Amtrak service need to hold onto it, support it. Those who have no access to the rail network need to demand it.

Much of Amtrak’s capital is directed to its massive and essential Northeast Corridor service, leaving little for the rest of the country. But we in the West are no less deserving.

Which brings us to the matter of state financial support for the Chief in the absence of sufficient interest or resources at the federal level — which is its proper place in the role of jurisdiction of interstate commerce. While Congress dictated that shorter Amtrak routes must rely on state financial support, the Chief’s situation is different in that it involves hundreds of miles of neglected track maintenance due to downgrading of the line by its owner and Amtrak host railroad, BNSF Railway.

Some call the financial demands extortion, others just business. Or even abdication of responsibility at the federal level. So it’s put up or shut up for Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas. I say “put up” because the rail line’s existence and potential are too important to discard. Once the train is gone, it’s gone forever. Colorado should set the example because we lose it all, while the other two states will retain a portion of the route if the train is rerouted.

And, furthermore, there is a potential bonus for Colorado with the proposed Pueblo stop, creating numerous economic opportunities and mobility enhancements for the much larger population, complementing the existing served communities.

One final thought for Pueblo. If the train is saved and Pueblo is added as a stop, your community must make every effort to have Amtrak call at your awesome Pueblo Union Depot. I first saw it inside and out last summer and concluded that it would make a fine train station once again. Picture perfect. And it would make a great anchor for the eventual Front Range regional rail, connecting all Front Range communities. That should be the next priority.

I also was impressed with the sincerity and dedication of the folks at the Pueblo Railway Museum, who would like to develop a rail link between the depot and your beautiful Riverwalk. I am now a museum member — my effort at rail-oriented economic development. Speaking of new Amtrak stops, Pueblo and Walsenburg would be gateways to some of the world’s most revered tourist railroads. Even Colorado Springs is within convenient striking distance. Very symbiotic relationships.

But first, we must keep the Southwest Chief here, where it belongs. Otherwise, it may move to Texas.

Robert Brewster

News out of New Mexico

In all the excitement of our train trip Friday, we forgot to mention some important legislative news out of New Mexico that broke late Thursday night. According to a Santa Fe New Mexican article, the 30-day state senate session ended with no resolution to allot funding to the Chief. The 5 bills proposing funding were not brought forth before the end of the session, and therefore failed to pass. 

Though it would have been a relief to see funding guaranteed so far in advance, Colfax County Commissioner Bill Sauble told us in Raton Friday that many still feel optimistic and plan to strategize over the next year. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Scenes from Raton

We took a lovely stroll around Raton's 1st and 2nd streets this evening before catching the Southwest Chief back to Colorado. 


Snaps from the Chief

Running on the Amtrak since 1971

Thank you!

We are so grateful for Paul Jenkins (far right), President of Grow Raton! for helping coordinate a mini press conference/discussion forum with officials and community members from Raton this afternoon. There is nothing like hearing from passionate people to get you excited about your radio story!

Train Travel

Greetings from Raton, NM. We had quite the morning on the Southwest Chief learning about train travel, meeting passengers, and best of all, conducting interviews with crew members that you'll soon hear on our radio series. Here is Martha with Conductor Gary Norris in the lounge car.

Through the East Colorado plains

On the train!

We were the only passengers to board in Lamar, but we were relieved to find dozens of others already on the train. Next stop- La Junta! 

Lamar, CO

We spent the night at a charming motel just south of the train station. At 6:30am we were up and ready to catch our 7:00 train when we received a delay notification from Amtrak. Now 9:15am, we're just a few minutes from boarding the Southwest Chief westbound to Raton.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Quiet Kansans

We haven't heard much out of Kansas recently....

It was something of a relief to find a story from a local Kansas newspaper today indicating some Southwest Chief support from the cities it passes through. Garden City Manager Matt Allen and Dodge City Attorney Ken Strobel weren't shy about voicing their support; as for Governor Sam Brownback (R), his support for the Southwest Chief remains unconfirmed.

According to an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Brownback was known for heavy criticism toward Amtrak when he was a U.S. Senator. As of now, we know Garden City Mayor Dan Frankhauser and U.S. Representative for the district John Doll (R) are doing what they can to save the Chief.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Last Minute Preparations

Hard at work in the KRCC Newsroom in preparation for our departure to Lamar tomorrow evening! This morning we met with Bryan Oller, a photojournalist who has worked with the Associated Press, Reuters, the Colorado Springs Gazette, and now our very own Colorado College. He gave us some great tips on high quality iPhone camera apps and how we can best pair images with the audio we collect.
We're pretty excited, because we just confirmed our meeting with Paul Jenkins in Raton and he told us that he has also invited representatives from community businesses that depend on the Southwest Chief: the NRA Whittington Center and the Philmont Scout Ranch. Aside from scheduling our meetings, we're also working out travel logistics and coming up with fun things to do during our 6-hour layover in Northern New Mexico--It's the first time either of us has spent time in the area!

Depot to Depot

Our project is officially underway! We are booked to ride the Southwest Chief from Lamar, Colorado to Raton, New Mexico this coming Friday. This morning we got in touch with Amtrak Media Relations in Chicago and figured out how to get Press Access on the ride. Once we receive confirmation that we have been authorized, we are hoping that folks riding and working on the train will take a few minutes to talk to us.
We will have a long layover in Raton before turning back to Lamar, so we have scheduled a group interview with Greater Raton Economic Development Corporation Paul Jenkins, Economic/Community Development Director for Raton Christopher Reed, and Colfax County Commissioner Bill Sauble. We felt a lot of small-town love when Paul graciously set this up for us within minutes of answering our phone call.
At this point in our project the information we are working with is still developing. No one knows what is going to happen to the Colorado/New Mexico portion of the Southwest Chief, and the upcoming legislature is dependent on so many factors. Working with an “if…then…” framework is challenging for a reporter, so we are gearing up to be as flexible as possible and stay on our toes.
This first train trip really marks the jumping off point of our project. I am looking forward to getting into the field and collecting our first batch of sound! Stay tuned…

The Departure Point

Welcome to the Railroad Project! Here you can follow KRCC (91.5 FM) news reporters Martha Perez-Sanz and Maggie Spencer on their journey with the Southwest Chief train through Southern Colorado and New Mexico.

The Southwest Chief runs over 2,000 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles; since 1971, Amtrak has operated the route owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail company that runs through our listening area in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. Without major airports, regional residents and visitors alike depend on the Southwest Chief for transportation and tourism to stops in Lamar, La Junta, and Trinidad, CO, as well as stations throughout New Mexico.

Amtrak passenger trains are different from freight trains; they are much heavier and move at greater speeds (ideally 80+ miles per hour). Over the years, the tracks have suffered from daily travel, and the portion through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico will need to be repaired. BNSF estimates the total repairs will cost roughly $200 million dollars, but the company says they will not cover it because their contract with Amtrak ends in 2016.

No party can pay for the repairs on their own, which means Amtrak, BNSF, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico will each have to pay an equal share to keep the train running. Without repairs, Amtrak will likely reroute the Southwest Chief through Oklahoma and Texas, completely eliminating Kansas, Colorado, and Northern New Mexico from the route. Lawmakers and legislators from all three states have taken a stance on the issue, many hoping to garner funds the save the route, and ultimately save the economies and cultures of towns where the train stops. Some public officials, however, believe funding is the responsibility of the federal government (which has historically subsidized Amtrak) and will not allot state and taxpayer dollars to the repair project. Legislation is under consideration in Colorado and New Mexico (and being drafted in Kansas) to fund the new tracks, while train passengers and community members show their support through rallies and donations.

For more than a century, train travel has been an institution of the American West; many argue that once it’s gone, we won’t be able to reestablish it again. This weekend, we will set out to ride the route that could soon be abandoned in order to learn just what the Southwest Chief means to the communities it serves and the loyal passengers who depend on it.

 Southwest Chief bound for Trinidad, CO from La Junta, CO. Photo courtesy of Steve Wilson, Flickr.