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Our future rail trip

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Last week’s May rail trip raises Gilpin questions

By Forrest Whitman

A friend and I just took a May rail trip to Lamy, New Mexico. The Southwest Chief is always fun to ride. We got on in Trinidad, Colorado and soon were riding over Raton Pass. It’s an incredibly scenic ride and one filled with history. Alas, The Southwest Chief may be lost to us in just a couple of years. Could we be riding the last train over Raton Pass? Many pro-rail groups are worried about this possibility. That’s because we could face the continuation of a bad trend in the U.S. Congress. That trend could impact our mountain counties too.

An iconic cross country trip

  The Southwest Chief is worth celebrating. It begins its 2,256 mile trip in Los Angeles and ends its run in Chicago just as it has for a hundred years. In 2015 AMTRAK and the BNSF railroad have to re-negotiate their contract to run the Chief over BNSF tracks. BNSF is not eager to upgrade, or even maintain, the tracks from Newton, KS to Albuquerque, NM. Over the next ten years the cost of that upgrade cold reach $100 million, though that’s probably a high guess.

Last fiscal year 354,912 rode the Chief and that number is up by 8.5% for the fiscal year about to end. It is a popular train and lots of riders do a part of the route just as we did last week. As we sat in the lounge car and watched the sights, we imagined all the railroad history rolling by. This was once the flagship train of the Santa Fe Railroad. Many a movie star and quite a few presidents rode the Chief. At least a dozen movies featured the train starting with The Harvey Girls starring Judy Garland and Ray Bolger in 1946. I remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). There was The 3:10 to Yuma and many more. The new Lone Ranger has some great scenes too I’m told.

As with all railroad dining cars, patrons are seated at tables for four so you make new friends. As we enjoyed our lunch in the diner we chatted with a couple who’d often ridden AMTRAK. While only in their 40s, they’ve always worked at jobs with lots of time “on” and lots of time “off.” They’ve ridden all the way across the country and ridden about twenty U.S. and Canadian trains. We felt like amateurs by comparison.

A Popular Train

This is a very well used train. For instance, we got off in Lamy, NM. Last year over 13,000 passengers used the Lamy station. Many a small town depends on the Chief for transportation. As I chatted with the women staffing the Trinidad visitor’s center they remarked that the Chief was still their best travel option for folks going to Kansas City, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Besides that they hated the airport pat down routine before getting on a plane. That discussion led one wag in the room to break into song. Of course that was the currently popular country song (dedicated to the TSA) “Thank you for Touching Me There.”

Why Do Some Congressmen Hate AMTRAK?

  Federal spending on trains is a drop in the bucket compared to what is spent on other transportation modes. Airports got $26 billion last year and highways got $43 billion. All railroads, freight and passenger, took home a measly $4.3 billion and AMTRAK got only $1.6 billion of that. Congress has basically starved AMTRAK since 1971. A good many in congress even admit they are focused on putting it out of business. That’s true even though passenger groups point out that rail riders pay a higher portion of their actual cost on a train than they do in a car or an airplane. There are many theories about why this is the case. One that makes sense to me is that AMTRAK is such a sitting duck. Federal money spent on highways and airports is buried deep in dozens of kinds of legislation. The AMTRAK money sits out there like a sore thumb. In some districts it’s good policy to whip the federal government, and this is an easy way to do it.

Rail groups are organizing to lobby. When we got off the train in Trinidad on our way home we were met with a demonstration. About thirty rail passenger advocates were there with signs and petitions. The signs (homemade) read “Save our train,” “Trinidad needs rail,” and so on.

Membership in the Colorado Association of Rail Passengers (you can join for $10) is up. In fact, a group of COLORAIL members is planning a trip to D.C. to lobby. All is not lost even on this House of Representatives.

The Gilpin Rail Connection

  The Obama administration has long promised to put more cash into rail. In some states that’s happening now. California and Illinois are good examples. Illinois has completed 120 mph rail from Chicago to St. Louis and California is in the planning process for speeds up to 200 mph. CDOT has had a priority to build a fixed guideway system along I-70 for some time now. That would not be traditional heavy rail in all likelihood, but it would involve some kind of rail. People are gradually getting used to the idea that public transportation will be more and more needed. Ridership on the new light rail line from Golden to downtown Denver appears to be rapidly increasing. The 21,000 mile AMTRAK system saw an 8% increase in riders last year. The demographics are favorable too. The under-thirty folks are generally out of love with their autos and favor public transportation. All of this means that the promised federal funding for an I-70 solution is needed more than ever. Will future Gilpinites take it as a matter of course to drive down to the station along I-70 or take a bus there? Some of the studies of the former Rocky Mountain Rail Authority certainly say they will. So far the Obama administration has squeezed only some of the money needed out of Congress. We’ll see what happens.

The view from the dining car

  Last week all was well on the Southwest Chief. With a nearly full train there was a wait for the dining car, but we didn’t mind. As we slowly made our way up to the tunnel at the top of Raton Pass we wandered back to the bar/observation car. On the train it’s legitimate to have a glass of wine even before 12:30 pm. We slid past the site of Uncle Dick Wooton’s store. I was able to tell some of his stories from The Old Spanish Trail (Col. Henry Inman 1897). His tales of the Espinosa brothers and how he got the Santa Fe R. R. to the top of the pass before the D 8 R. G. R.R. are truly sidewinders. Let’s hope our grandkids can take that trip when they’re as old as we are.

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