Amtrak’s Southwest Chief: Anything new?

Report (with PHOTOS) and Comments by Russ Jackson

How is Train #3 doing into Los Angeles Union Station this summer? The short answer is, not bad, but with a few exceptions. On May 24, 2012, the Southwest Chief departed Chicago Union Station on time, with three non-regular consist cars on the end and Amtrak CEO, Joseph Boardman taking a long summer trip “getting out to ride the trains and visit with the (employees) who do all the things needed to serve our customers.” He rode several trains in that two-week period. How did Amtrak and the BNSF handle his Southwest Chief? It was 31 minutes late at Raton, NM, but by the time it arrived in Los Angeles it was 3 hours and 52 minutes late.

A late Southwest Chief arriving at Los Angeles Union Station. (file photo by Mike Palmer)

As for the rest of the Chiefs, as of July 2 they were running “on time” 76.1% of the time at end points for the fiscal year that started last October 1, a bit above the average for all the long-distance trains at 72.9%. Looking only at the arrival times in Los Angeles this summer, train #3, is scheduled for a padded arrival time of 8:15 at LAUS. Starting with July 10, the arrival times there through July 24 are: 7:25, 8:36, 3:47 pm (!), 8:53, 7:31, 8:13, 8:10, 8:11, 8:36, 8:41, 10:26, 8:28, 11:35, 8:20, and 8:05. Pretty consistent, but as we said, “with a few exceptions.” The one big exception in that list was the arrival on Thursday, July 12. That train departed Chicago on July 10 on time, but the recurring problem of engines dying enroute happened just past Garden City, KS, and the train limped across the rest of its route. Ordinarily it would have picked up an Amtrak “protect” locomotive at Albuquerque, but on this date it was not there. In addition, the Railrunner track work west of Lamy is causing 10 mph to 20 mph slow orders, so it was 2 hours 22 minutes late out of Albuquerque. The train advanced more slowly, losing more time until it was 4 hours 13 minutes late at Riverside. Then another crisis; there was a pedestrian fatality on the main BNSF line in Anaheim at Orangethorpe, causing the arrival time at Fullerton to be 8 hours and 19 minutes late. Take out the padding and it arrived at 3:47 pm in Los Angeles, 7 hours 32 minutes late. Other trains this summer have been slowed across the mid-west because of heat restrictions where the temperatures have been well above 90 degrees. No train wants to run through a “sun kink” at full speed, which is a sidewise outward movement of steel rails almost exclusively on continuous welded rail, not on jointed rail.

Lamy, NM, Amtrak station is also the destination for the Santa Fe Southern tourist train. (May, 2012, Russ Jackson photo)

Trip Report. Bill Page lives near Santa Fe, NM, and travels to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief whenever possible. On June 13, 2012, he boarded train #3 at the Lamy Amtrak station, and e-mailed his friends that his train was “roughly four hours and 21 minutes late running behind a BNSF freight engine that is supposed to be changed out in Albuquerque. Beautiful country, good seat, pretty pre-monsoon sunset. Good ribs for dinner, nice wine.” What had happened was an Amtrak P-42 died outside Topeka, KS. In this case the BNSF had put one of their units on the train, but because it was geared for freight speed maximums Bill’s Southwest Chief ran later and later. His end-of-trip report says, “The saga of the little BNSF engine that could! After leaving Albuquerque those of us in coach who were following the details had to wait for the first big curve to notice that we were still led by the same freight engine. We lost time all night, but awoke to rumors we would get an Amtrak locomotive at Barstow. Didn’t happen. We arrived in Los Angeles at 2:34 pm, 6 hours 19 minutes late. But, o.k. I love train travel and I had an extra 22 minutes to make it to my granddaughter’s graduation ceremony. The Amtrak breakfast was wonderful and leisurely compared to the normal rush when the train is on time, and we had an ‘airline style’ package of emergency snaks for punch. Other passengers thought an (Army) MRE would have been better. The return trip back two days later was on time or ahead of schedule all the way.”

What about a possible reroute of the train to the southern “Transcon” line? Nothing definitive at this time, but they are “working on it.” At this point Amtrak and the BNSF have until 2015 before something must happen. That’s when the maintenance agreement between the two companies for the jointed rail section of the historic line across Raton Pass will expire. The BNSF says it will have to have $100 million up front to repair and restore the tracks to full passenger status, and $10 million annually for maintenance of the segment between Hutchison, KS, and Lamy, NM. Needless to say, Amtrak is not going to cough up that much for just two passenger trains a day (few freight trains run on any segment there currently, and none through Raton Pass). The BNSF is reported to be sending bills to Amtrak for the LaJunta to Lamy segment, but Amtrak is not paying. A speed reduction is now in effect, and Amtrak has lengthened the schedule through that area. Currently train #3 is still losing time even with the new schedule. Westbound trains that arrive close to on time in Newton, KS, are routinely arriving in Lamy anywhere from 24 to 93 minutes late. For many years the Southwest Chief has been a leader in long-distance on time performance, and RailPAC member Ralph James remembers his trips on it and seeing how it generated good local business as well as high passenger-mile travel.

Raton, New Mexico, Amtrak station after its remodeling. (file photo by Jim Clifton)

Support for retaining the Southwest Chief on its historic route has been growing. According to Bob Johnston writing in the August 2012 issue of Trains magazine, in fiscal year 2011 65,198 travelers either boarded or disembarked from the train at the stations affected by the possible reroute in western Kansas, southern Colorado, or northern New Mexico. Each station generates approximately a half million dollars in annual revenue for Amtrak, with Raton having the highest productivity because of the Boy Scouts summer camp near there. Garden City generates 3/4 of a million dollars alone. That city has led the charge to bring the states, cities, Amtrak, and the BNSF together. On April 10 a meeting was held there and a “coalition” has been formed. RailPAC and the other rail passenger associations along the line have joined in support. Newton, Garden City, Dodge City, Lamar, LaJunta, Trinidad, and Raton have kicked in up to $20,000 each to work on the project. RailPAC NM member Jon Messier is working with the coalition to gather NM’s signature, and he is optimistic for a positive result, keeping the train on the current route where it is most productive. As for the BNSF restoring freight traffic up there, coal is the only commodity that would resurrect it, and with coal consumption on the decline reopening the mines along the route is unlikely. That state’s current Republican Governor, in the words of one resident, “won’t do anything for people north of Albuquerque, the state’s Democrat enclave,” and has her hands full with keeping the Railrunner trains alive and dealing with the BNSF over the Raton Pass ownership. As for the BNSF restoring freight traffic up there, coal is the only commodity that would resurrect it and with coal consumption on the decline reopening the mines along the route is not likely. RailPAC President, Paul Dyson said, “Someone needs to find oil or gas up around Trinidad or Raton to get some ton miles to pay the bills.” So, what happens in 2016? Will the train go via the “Transcon” line through Amarillo, abandoning those riders for cities that have not had passenger trains since 1971? That decision is probably not going to be made until 2015. Meanwhile, we follow the story and communicate with the decision-makers along the line, encouraging them to fight for it.

Elsewhere on the route of Trains 3 and 4, the remodeled 1907 Kingman, Arizona Amtrak unstaffed station is open with its 750 foot platform. A rental car firm has moved into the facility, for train riders who are heading for Las Vegas, NV. Almost 11,000 travelers used this station in 2011. It was featured as a “where is this” photo in the April, 2012 issue of Arizona Highways magazine. (June, 2012 photo by Richard Strandberg)

Comments are closed.