Senators urge retention of Southwest Chief rail service

By:  T.S. Last

SANTA FE – A bipartisan group of U.S. senators from five states, including New Mexico Democrats Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, is urging Amtrak to keep train passenger service over all of the route of the Southwest Chief, which runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles.

New Mexico’s delegation also joined senators from Kansas and Colorado in introducing an amendment to an appropriation bill approved by the Senate on Wednesday that states “long-distance passenger rail routes and services should be sustained to ensure connectively” throughout the country’s rail network.

Amtrak is considering replacement of train service on the Southwest Chief route between Albuquerque and Dodge City, Kan. with chartered bus service. It says the “financial investment of the magnitude needed to retain this portion of the route is not prudent.” Amtrak is under the gun to meet certain rails safety standards by the end of the year.

The change would eliminate New Mexico Amtrak stops at Raton, Las Vegas and Lamy southeast of Santa Fe.

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson has also backed off a commitment to contribute $3 million for its share of a so-called TIGER grant to upgrade hundreds of miles of track, most of it through northeast New Mexico.

“The potential suspension of rail service has raised serious concerns among our constituents who depend on the Southwest Chief,” the senators wrote. “We strongly disagree with such a decision and urge you to uphold Amtrak’s commitment to intercity rail service across the entire national network, particularly through our rural communities.”

The senators also ask Amtrak to uphold its commitment to the TIGER grant and urges Amtrak, created by Congress in 1970 to preserve intercity passenger rail service, to seeking further funding through a Federal Railroad Administration program that has more than $318 million in grant funding available.

The letter is signed by Heinrich, Udall, and fellow Democratic senators Michael Bennet, of Colorado; Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, of Illinois; Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, of California; and Republicans Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, of Kansas; and Cory Gardner, of Colorado.