Monday, November 09, 2015

Rural towns in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico work together to save Amtrak's Southwest Chief

"A group of small, sleepy towns in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico banded together in the past three years" to save Amtrak's Southwest Chief that the railroad company threatened to shut down if aging tracks weren't replaced, Jesse Paul reports for The Denver Post. "Needing roughly $200 million for miles of track repairs on Burlington Northern Santa Fe's line, officials were plotting to reroute the beloved Chicago-to-Los Angeles train into Oklahoma and Texas. With BNSF reluctant to pay for the rail fixes since their freighters lumber along at lower speeds and don't use some of the track, the prospects for saving the Chief—described by one official as 'pushing a rock up a hill'—seemed insurmountable." (Kansas Department of Transportation map)

"But towns that never before interacted, such as Trinidad, Colo.; Dodge City, Kan.; and Lamy, N.M., began pressing their state governments, digging into their pockets and applying for millions of federal grant dollars to prevent the line from leaving for better track," Paul writes. "After several failed fundraising tries, their efforts miraculously worked. A $15 million federal grant was awarded to the initiative in late October, the second such grant in two years, meaning the train will keep rumbling through the foreseeable future. More than $50 million has been gathered to date thanks also to state and local matching efforts, and BNSF has agreed to cover much of the maintenance costs. Millions are still needed to complete the repairs, and work on the line will continue for the next several years. But officials feel confident they will be able to secure the rest of the money."

The Southwest Chief had a record 367,267 passengers in 2014, Paul writes. "Experts say Amtrak's influence in rural communities is mammoth, acting as an advertising tool, a commercial hub and an economic stimulus that reaches over a 70-mile radius at every stop." Simon Cordery, a history professor at Western Illinois University who studies railroads, told Paul, "Many of the smaller communities, this is their only means of public transportation. There's no air service, [and] Greyhound bus service is a skeleton of what it used to be." He said "people who don't use the railroad don't understand the service's importance because it's outside their scope of experience."

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