Seeing hundreds of people wait at a train station for hours, signs in hand as a show of support, would gladden the heart of any politician — especially in an election year. That was the scene on a recent train tour, but not because of politicians on board. No, the crowds were there to support the train itself: Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line on a whistle-stop tour of a portion of the route from Chicago to Los Angeles.
On board for the New Mexico leg were a few politicians: U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, for one, and Gov. Susana Martinez’s representative, Department of Transportation Secretary Tom Church. But the big draw likely was Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman, who was riding the line to show the importance of keeping the current Southwest Chief route in place. Six days of a CEO’s time aboard the train underscores how much Amtrak values the current route. Boardman even stopped by the Philmont Scout Ranch in Northern New Mexico, the biggest employer in that neck of the woods. And one, by the way, that depends on Amtrak to deliver some thousands of Scouts every summer to Raton for pickup. Already, summer 2015 is booked, but campers are calling to see whether the train will be running in 2016.
For that to continue, the states of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas are being asked pony up money to upgrade the train tracks, bridges and signal maintenance. Amtrak and track owner Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway also would kick in a share of the estimated $200 million needed for improvements. Without upgrades, the tracks can’t handle passenger trains, leaving Amtrak with little choice but to abandon the route. (Congress isn’t appropriating $200 million for railroad tracks, more’s the pity.)
That decision would cost Northern New Mexico passenger rail, leaving people with fewer transportation choices and pulverizing an already fragile economy. The signs held up in Raton said it best: “It’s our life’s blood.” Some 100 people met the train there, and even in Lamy, with the train two hours late because of stops, more than 80 folks were waiting last Saturday to show their support.
To some, Gov. Martinez has appeared cool to the proposal that New Mexico join in with Kansas and Colorado to fund track repairs. In her mind, keeping Amtrak going is a federal responsibility (we don’t disagree but want a backup should Congress fail, as it has lately, to fund infrastructure repairs). She also believes that spending state tax dollars on private tracks would violate the New Mexico Constitution’s anti-donation clause, which forbids spending public money on private business ventures. That’s also a valid concern, but there’s usually a way to forge a partnership that does not violate the constitution — should a governor want to, that is.
Then there is the question of how much the repairs and upgrades will cost. Rightly, the governor and Transportation Secretary Church have made it clear they want to investigate how much fixing the tracks means to the bottom line. “We need to know what the facts are,” Church said. In his opinion, New Mexico is simply exercising due diligence, not dragging its heels on saving the Southwest Chief — and he even gets a tad riled up if someone suggests that our state is lagging behind Colorado and Kansas. The state’s study should be wrapped up by November with decisions about what to do shortly to follow.
Church made it clear that he understands — even before the whistle-stop tour — the importance of the Southwest Chief to Northern New Mexico. “This is not a political issue. We’re just finding out the costs.” What’s more, he told The NewMexican, “Our goal is to save it. If it really goes onto the chopping block, the state needs to step up.”
Time is running out, too, with Amtrak needing to know whether the tracks will be upgraded by the end of 2015. Otherwise, the route could shift away from Northern New Mexico. Folks in Belen will be pleased, and we don’t blame them. However, the economies of Raton, Las Vegas, N.M., and points in Colorado and Kansas would experience a body blow. Gov. Martinez and other leaders must not let that happen. Church’s presence on the train, and his clear message that the governor knows the Southwest Chief matters to the North is a welcome one. And Church is right — keeping the route is not a political issue, it’s an economic necessity for Northern New Mexico.