Let’s get back on the track with the Southwest Chief and economic development

Author: Hugh Fowler - February 28, 2014 - Updated: February 28, 2014


AMTRAK has operated two trains through Colorado since Congress excused the national railroads from hauling people and assigned the job to that ongressionally chartered corporation. Most Denver folks are aware of the famous California Zephyr, making two stops a day at the soon to be re-opened Union Station on the way to San Francisco from Chicago.

The other national streamliner — that’s what they used to be called — is the Southwest Chief, operated over the lines of BNSF. Those last two initials SF are for Santa Fe (celebrated in song as “Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe”), which was famous for, in addition to the song, luxury, trans-continental trains like the Super Chief.

Coming from Chicago, the Southwest Chief enters Colorado at Lamar, travels West to La Junta where it turns South on the Santa Fe Trail to Trinidad, then over Raton Pass in New Mexico to Santa Fe and on to Los Angeles. Market conditions have changed freight patterns and AMTRAK is no longer able to handle all the costs of maintaining the right-of-way that the Chief shares with BNSF.

The result is that AMTRAK has announced its intention to abandon the Chief through Colorado, denying Southern Colorado its only access to tourist and local rail passenger service. The problem is not exclusive to our state — many other states have faced the same issues. And have stepped up with the resources necessary to save their railroads — in almost every case with very positive results.

State Rep. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo and Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, have introduced HB 1161 to deal with this problem. The bill was unanimously reported out of the House Local Government committee and has many sponsors. ColoRail, the local affiliate of the National Rail Passenger Association — a large network of railroad enthusiasts that has been credited with keeping passenger railroads alive in the U.S. since the advent of AMTRAK in 1970 — views the bill and its approach to this transportation problem as a model for many other states.

ColoRail is anxious for as many legislators as possible to have a complete understanding of the situation, which is a building block for encouraging support of railroads as active participants in the economic development of Colorado, especially the Front Range. The Colorado Department of Transportation has been exploring the “interconnectivity” of all Front Range cities by rail, and a meeting next Saturday will include a panel of experts from AMTRAK, the railroads, local officeholders, state and city econ development types, and tourism specialists.

ColoRail is underwriting the meeting to kick off a serious effort: providing some practicable rail alternatives for transportation problems in Colorado that will get us “back on track!” We guarantee an interesting morning with a modern view of a legacy as old as our state itself. All legislators have been invited to the meeting on March 8, at Colorado History, 12th and Broadway in Denver, at 8:30 a.m.

Hugh Fowler was the Senate sponsor of the 1969 bill rescuing what became the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic RR — 65 miles of mountainous steam narrow-gauge — owned by every citizen of Colorado (and New Mexico). For more information, contact Fowler at 303-986-1606.

Hugh Fowler

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