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 Bus services largely have been withdrawn (unprofitable), air services are scarce and very costly and highways can be dangerous, intimidating, congested and slippery as we once again observe this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

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