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Historic 'Southwest Chief' route endangered

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By Hal Rhodes

Nostalgia has long surrounded the demise of legendary Route 66 after Interstate 40 swept its way through the Southwest. Yet there was at least some comfort to be had in knowing that a major roadway had come into being, upon which motorists would wend their way to and fro our dramatic region.
Unfortunately, the tenuous future of an historic Amtrak train invites a less sanguine frame of mind.
During the era of Santa Fe Railway, it was known as the Super Chief. In this age of Amtrak, it’s called the Southwest Chief, and it is still the stuff of history and legend. But unless New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas come up with the wherewithal to keep the Chief operating on its present route, many towns and cities in those states will lose the passenger train service that started boarding travelers in their communities the 1930s.
As matters stand, the Chief, once a jewel in America’s railroad crown, runs on tracks owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe. These are tracks suitable principally for freight trains, and they have been so degraded over the years that BNSF itself no longer uses them.
If the three states through which they run fail to come up with a cost-sharing plan capable of improving the rail system by 2016, BNSF has threatened to force Amtrak to re-route the Chief to another rail system. For those who missed it, this is not breaking news.
Red flags about the peril facing the Southwest Chief first appeared when Bill Richardson was governor and he, in concert with two successive Colorado governors, began making plans to avert the looming crisis.
Richardson’s successor, Susana Martinez, however, turned thumbs down on any such proposal and let it be known that she’s not inclined to soften her views on the matter at the upcoming 30-day budget session of the Legislature.
It’s an amazingly shortsighted posture, and there are those who suspect that, not unlike her attempt to unravel the state’s burgeoning movie industry, it is simply another Martinez swipe at her predecessor’s legacy.
As presently envisioned, unless a cost-sharing agreement between the three states is reached by 2016, BNSF will divert the Chief’s route at Wichita and send it packing down to Amarillo before it heads west to Albuquerque and on through to Arizona until it reaches Los Angeles.
Towns and cities in Colorado scheduled to lose rail service include Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad. In New Mexico Raton, Las Vegas and Lamy (in other words Santa Fe) would be cut off from passenger service.
The passenger train has played a large part in the history of these cities.
During World War II Lamy was the doorway through which the most famous scientists of the era — Oppenheimer, Fermi, Bethe, Rabi, among them — secretly passed en route to Los Alamos where they would develop the first atomic weapon.
Beyond times past, passenger trains still play a vital part in New Mexico’s economy.
As the crackerjack journalist Tom Sharpe recently noted in the Santa Fe New Mexican, last year alone “nearly 125,000 passengers boarded or disembarked the Chief in New Mexico…”
Moreover, the state benefits to the tune of “an estimated $29 million annual economic impact from spending related to train passengers.”
Small wonder there is support among many state and local officials for a proposal that would have the three states, Amtrak and BNSF divvy up $4 million annually over a period of 10 years to upgrade the rails and keep the Chief running on its present course.
As state Sen. Tom Keller, D-Albuquerque, put it, “The price tag … is very low and very feasible.”
But then there’s the governor.