By Kimberley Adams<br />Staff writer
RATON – The Amtrak Southwest Chief rolled into the Historic 1st Street neighborhood of Raton Saturday (May 10) to the delight of hundreds of people supporting the train as part of the 7th annual National Train Day celebration that day.
Train Day volunteers and Southwest Chief supporters took the opportunity to rally for saving the iconic route from being diverted to a more southern route that would bypass southeast Colorado and northeast New Mexico by January 2016.
Raton is in the middle of a 2,256 mile railroad route between Chicago and Los Angeles. A 632-mile stretch between Newton, Kansas and Albuquerque may disappear unless the states of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas can agree on a joint plan to pay $94.4 million for track repair and upgrades that will accommodate speeds up to 79 mph. Amtrak is also asking states to pay $11.8 million in annual maintenance over a 10-year period.
Eric Chavez, owner of 1st Street business The Buffalo Chip, and Raton resident Ernest Haecker, along with several other volunteers dressed in full traditional western gear to welcome the train’s morning and evening arrival into Raton. Haecker travels frequently by train to New York City and is a member of the National Association of Railroad passengers.
Haecker and Chavez handed out leaflets, one with tiny pieces of coal attached to it, asking citizens to contact congressmen and Gov. Susana Martinez to keep its current route intact. The three-member band “River of Life,” of Faith Christian Church in Trinidad played wholesome western tunes for entertainment.
“We’re hoping to get our word across to Susana (Martinez) and keep the Chief,” Chavez said at the Train Day event. “We cannot afford to lose it.”
While state legislative and congressional representatives have stood strong supporting New Mexican communities that rely on the train’s twice daily run through the state, Martinez has openly stressed that the money for the repairs should come from the federal government and not state governments.
“Ever since Amtrak was put in place, they have always been funded with federal dollars – always – and for the first time, they are wanting the states to take on that burden,” Gov. Martinez said during a phone interview May 6. “And, that means, the people of New Mexico will have to take on that burden.”
Amtrak has been subsidized, in large part, by the federal government since its inception in 1971. In New Mexico the Southwest Chief runs on nearly 600 miles of track leased from its owners BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe). Its 20 year lease agreement ends Dec. 31, 2015.
In its 2014 through 2018 strategic plan Amtrak said it needs other income avenues besides ticket revenue to fund its operating budget.
“The economies and consumer demand for long-distance train service do not make it possible to cover operating expenses solely with ticket revenue – it could not exist without the federal funding to keep it in operation,” it stated in the Amtrak Stragetic Plan for fiscal years 2014 through FY2018.
Amtrak proposes in its 2014-2018 strategic plan that the federal government pay the passenger rail company an agreed upon price to operate its long distance routes similar to payments to its other federal contractors. “Like any other federal contractor, money received from the government should be accounted for as revenue from a customer – not subsidy from a public entity,” it states.
Southwest Chief passengers Ed and Mary Ellen Cross were on the southbound train May 10 to Flagstaff, Arizona from Albany, New York with the tour company “America By Rail.” There overnight experience on the train, they said, was, “very interesting.”
Even 35-year veteran Amtrak employee, Fred Rogers, who is been a Southwest Chief sleeper car porter can sense the support Raton has for the train line.
“This is the biggest crowd I’ve seen since I left Chicago,” Rogers said of Raton’s celebration of Train Day 2014.