The small-town fight to save Amtrak's Southwest Chief

Melissa Burdick Harmon
CompassFebruary 27, 2014

Note: The writer of this story is a lover of train travel who first rode the Southwest Chief in 1974, when it was called the Southwest Limited.

It is a magical journey. It is a way to experience the panoramic scenery of the Midwest and West without ever turning a key in an ignition. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, whose origins date back to 1937, is cited as one of the loveliest rail trips in the world. And its future is in jeopardy. 

The Southwest Chief, which runs between Los Angeles and Chicago, glides through some of the world’s most magnificent landscapes on a route that carries some 355,000 passengers every year. There is magic all along the route – the train offers easy access to the Grand Canyon at its Flagstaff, Ariz., stop and to arty Santa Fe, N.M., by disembarking at the village of Lamy. Passengers can tour and pick up a later train to continue their journey if they choose.

Amtrak says the track must be improved to handle the speed of modern trains, and it is asking for $200 million in initial improvements to the track, which is owned by the BNSF Railway. The funds would be provided by the states served by the Southwest Chief, with both railroads providing $40 million each.

If no deal is reached by the end of the year, the Chief could be changed to a route farther south through Oklahoma and Texas. Sadly, history shows that when trains go, small towns like Lamy tend to die. 

In New Mexico, which urgently needs the train for tourism and for residents to travel, the House of Representatives easily passed legislation to fund the state’s share of the planned rail improvement, but the State Senate adjourned Feb. 20 without a vote. Critics say the funding should come from the federal government, which already supports Amtrak.

Amtrak, which has run the Southwest Chief since 1971 (it was called the Super Chief beginning in 1937), says its train must reach 79 mph to make its stops on time, and that can’t happen with the existing track.

The effort to save the Southwest Chief involves a good bit of fundraising. Amtrak is working with the states of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas, and the federal government to collaborate on a multi-million-dollar deal.

The Chief is an opportunity to see America at its most beautiful, and it is also an exercise in slowing down—taking time to appreciate the vast vistas passing by. It gives travelers a chance to appreciate the nuances of America’s regions, instead of what might appear to be a tiny dot from the air. The dining car offers good food. The sleeping accommodations are quite comfortable, ranging from private Superliner bedrooms for both day and night use to wide, reclining coach seating. The Sightseer Lounge Café is a great way to meet other travelers while taking in the sweeping views.

The Southwest Chief attracts a large and diverse group of passengers, ranging from elderly folks who prefer not to drive, to budget-conscious backpackers, to bevies of Boy Scouts who often take the Chief to the spectacular Philmont Scout Ranch near the town of Cimarron, N.M., where they learn cooperation, and survival skills, and also learn to love rail travel by earning their Railroad Merit Badge. 

“Kids have been riding the train to Philmont for 75 years,” said John Clark, director of high adventure at Philmont Scout Ranch.  “Part of that is an economic factor, yes, but it is also about the boys learning about America. We have participants from all 50 states, and average about 8,800 rail boardings every summer. Very few of these kids, about 13 or 14 years old, have ever been on a train, and they are fascinated by it,” he says.

The loss of the train line would disappoint young boys, but it would also have a strong negative effect on big cities. Santa Fe tourism, for example, will be hurt if the train stop in nearby Lamy is closed. Smaller cities are also finding that it is essential to keep the train. Garden City, Kan., Mayor David Crase is working to preserve the Southwest Chief’s stop in his town of 28,000 inhabitants, for example.

The numbers indicate that it is well worth investing in keeping the trains on the tracks, even when it is a single train making a single stop, in little-served towns. The National Association of Railroad Passengers’ Sean Jeans Gale said, “The Southwest Chief . . . attracts 355,500 passengers per year—466 per departure. Because it makes 31 intermediate stops, it provides a mobility choice for 31 million Americans who live within 50 miles of a passenger train, The Southwest Chief.”

People of all income levels who live along the affected routes are fighting hard to save the train. “We’re all very optimistic,” Clark said. “We all can compromise. We are willing to work with Amtrak.”

And Amtrak, according to Marc Magliari, manager of its media relations in Chicago, is working hard to collaborate with the folks who depend on The Southwest Chief.

“In large parts of the country, Amtrak is the public transportation. Air service is scanty and expensive. Intercity buses are gone. Many communities depend on Amtrak to get from city to city and town to town,” Magliari says.

While the 10-year cost is $200 million to make repairs and improvements to the BNSF track, Magliari said the numbers become less drastic when “Amtrak covers almost 80 percent of our operating cost from ticket sales and from real estate where we own property.” That property includes the big ticket space where the Acela Express, Amtrak’s high-speed train, runs from Boston along the Northeast Corridor to Washington, D.C.

With some luck, folks who love to savor the scenery, kids going off to Scout camp, people who live far from an airport, and most of all train buffs of every age, will all have the opportunity to continue to ride the rails from Los Angeles to Chicago, with some delightful stops in between.