Wednesday, February 19, 2014

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.

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