Sounds horrible. Who would want to lose such a storied train?
Well, you might if you live in Amarillo. For almost a century now, most freight on the Santa Fe has avoided Raton Pass in favor of the Southern Transcon, which heads east from Albuquerque to Clovis, then cuts an arrow-straight shot through Amarillo to Kansas City.
When BNSF first notified Amtrak several years ago that they were discontinuing freight service over Raton Pass, they offered the Chief a free ride on the Southern Transcon. Amtrak declined, and opted to continue paying out of pocket to maintain the line over Raton Pass. Amtrak is now attempting to get the states to pony up for this continuing maintenance headache. More meetings are scheduled. But if you ask me, they oughtta just move the train already.
Why switch routes? Well for one thing, a trip from Chicago to LA would be several hours shorter over the Southern Transcon than the current route over Raton. The route is flat, straight, and mostly double-tracked. Have some corporate PR video:
For another thing, the Southern Transcon serves a larger potential ridership base. Rerouting the Southwest Chief ends service to the Santa Fe area (144,000 people), the Kansas cities of Hutchison (42,000), Garden City (27,000) and Dodge City (27,000), as well as a few smaller towns in Colorado and New Mexico with a total population of about 47,000 people. However, the same rerouting adds service to Amarillo (250,000) and Clovis (38,000), and adding an equivalent number of small-town whistle-stops in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico yields an additional 61,000 people.
Dropping service to 287,000 people in order to serve 349,000 people might not seem like a spectacular deal on its face. Train riding is an established habit along the Raton Pass route, which has seen continuous passenger service since it opened, while passenger rail is a distant memory for most of the Clovis and Amarillo folks. But Santa Fe is connected to Albuquerque (and to a rerouted Chief) via the excellent Rail Runner commuter trains. These trains go all the way into downtown Santa Fe, while Amtrak currently stops at a desolate platform 20 miles outside of town.
“Cutting” service to Santa Fe, then, is more about replacing a forced transfer to a slow bus with a forced transfer to a fast train. How fast is fast? Interstate 25 between Albuquerque and Santa Fe has a posted speed limit of 75mph. Rail Runner easily passes traffic:
In truth, then, rerouting the Southwest Chief trades a ridership base of 143,000 on the existing route for 349,000 on the Southern Transcon. That’s a 150% increase! Reduced travel times act to further spur ridership, while reducing operating and maintenance costs. And substantial fuel savings are realized by dropping Raton’s climb to 7,588 feet.
So why hasn’t it happened already? For one thing, far too much of the debate around passenger rail in the US centers around “preservation.” Maintaining existing service is given a much higher priority than new service. For another, Amtrak has no clearly-defined mission or purpose beyond “run trains.” Is it a vertically-integrated owner-operator of an urban intercity rail network? Is it a train operating company with contracts for regional service in a variety of states? Is it a provider of long-distance “cruise train” service? Or is it just a glorified paratransit operator?
Whatever it is, moving the Southwest Chief is a no-brainer. Let’s hope Amtrak succumbs to the siren song of the Southern Transcon.