Southwest Chief Commission Quarterly Meeting
Thursday, July 7, 2016 10:00 a.m. Pueblo City-County Health Department 101 W. 9th Street Pueblo, CO 81003
In an editorial on March 9, The Pueblo Chieftain newspaper extolled the news that Amtrak is working on a plan to connect the city to the Southwest Chief. A branch train would connect Pueblo to La Junta, Colorado. There is talk of through cars from Chicago to Pueblo. See: Pueblo Chieftain editorial
“Like most plans, however, this one is not without at least one drawback. Although the through train’s schedule would take passengers nonstop east to Chicago, those headed west to Los Angeles would have an overnight La Junta layover,” the editorial notes.
“We can envision the economic benefits of passenger train service. Particularly if the powers that be make the through car depart from Pueblo’s Downtown at Union Depot. The depot could then couple with new stores, hotels — maybe even a saloon.”
Later in the month, the newspaper published a letter from ColoRail president Jim Souby and an opinion piece by ColoRail board member Bob Brewster. Brewster’s op-ed is reproduced below:
ROBERT BREWSTER GUEST COLUMNIST
Published: March 26, 2016
I wish to thank The Pueblo Chieftain for its support for Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and its potential extension to the beautiful Downtown Pueblo Union Depot. If this proposal becomes reality it will be a very big deal for Pueblo and, potentially, the Colorado Front Range and beyond.
There will be economic benefits as well as additional transportation options to all those served and reached by the train. As a frequent Amtrak passenger, I welcome these options enthusiastically! So would others.
While the short extension of the Southwest Chief to Pueblo doesn’t appear, at first glance, to offer an abundance of new transportation choices, it establishes Pueblo as an important anchor and hub for the north/south rail services that will surely follow.
Ideally, as support and demand dictate, the entire Chief will pass through Pueblo as it links Chicago with southern California and all intermediate points, including Albuquerque, our southern neighbor.
Potentially, a portion of the Chief (through cars) could then separate in Pueblo and head north to Denver, accessing Colorado’s other Amtrak service, the California Zephyr, while servicing communities in between. There would be no better way to connect Denver’s overwhelmingly successful Union Station redevelopment with a parallel project at the Pueblo Union Depot neighborhood than regular rail service.
Imagine two historic and revitalized downtowns rail-linked by their iconic and beautiful train stations, as they once were. Take a look at what has happened at Denver Union Station and surroundings if you are skeptical.
Until such through cars become reality, a dedicated Amtrak Thruway bus could link Denver with a Pueblo train, just as a similar Thruway bus currently connects with the western portion of the Chief at Raton. The bus would certainly boost ridership expectations.
Access to Amtrak’s entire national network at Pueblo Union Depot would be a great asset for the city, region and Front Range for those traveling longer distances, but the real bonus might be incremental implementation of passenger rail service along the populated Front Range communities, which suffer the dangerous indignities of Interstate 25 as their only north/south transportation and commuting option.
And the suggested Amtrak extensions could be the catalyst to initiate a stress-free railway alternative to the I-25 experience. But first, Amtrak needs to reach Pueblo. Keep in mind the selection of flight destinations and ticket prices at the Pueblo and Colorado Springs airports.
Amtrak adds a travel choice, now sorely lacking. It actually would restore a choice once enjoyed by our ancestors.
Rail service connecting the Front Range communities is part of the solution to Colorado’s mobility challenges, and Pueblo would be an obvious beneficiary of such service. Pueblo and its environs have much to offer.
Why not make it easier for visitors to reach it? A place on the national rail system starts the process, then a place on the Front Range Rail Corridor builds on that. And Evraz could supply the steel rail “building materials.” The question is: Will the two freight railroads permit an incremental implementation of passenger rail so it could occur in smaller, bite-size, manageable, affordable and doable segments? They own the right of way and they must benefit as well.
Success will take strong leadership from our local, state and federal representatives, as well as a dose of public-private partnerships, which have been the keys to success with Denver’s rail transit blossoming, where four new rail corridors open this year. Check them out as they open; the Airport Line is first on April 22. And look how the real estate development is following the rails, just as it did in the late 1800s when the first rails came to Colorado. History may indeed repeat itself.
It is best when citizens themselves clamor for more and better transportation options. That’s up to the residents and business communities in the region. Make noise. That effort can start by demanding a Pueblo extension of CDOT’s fledgling Bustang bus service connecting the Front Range.
A hybrid system of trains during the heaviest travel periods, where their efficiencies shine, and buses in the off-peak periods make a logical progression. The Chieftain suggests that full-scale Front Range Rail, as advocated by ColoRail and other groups, is 30 years away.
That is not acceptable. Not with Colorado’s growth pattern and all its attractive attributes. In fact, we’ve needed better transportation alternatives for quite some time. And weather events are only part of that story.
Rail events will be taking place throughout 2016, including four rail line grand openings and three rail group conventions, and maybe even anticipation of the return of the Winter Park Ski Train. But they are all taking place around the Denver metro area. I hope Pueblo can seize the rail momentum and demand part of the prosperity pie by supporting Amtrak’s interest in Pueblo and demanding more. After all, if it weren’t for communities joining forces with a united voice to save the Southwest Chief from extinction this discussion wouldn’t even be taking place.
Robert Brewster has been a frequent Amtrak passenger on routes all over the national rail network and prefers rail transportation over flying or driving. His interest in the rail mode has led to membership in a number of rail-oriented organizations. He also worked in the field of public transportation in the Denver-Boulder area since 1969.
ColoRail presented a briefing on efforts to rebuild the Amtrak Southwest Chief rail line and extend its service to Pueblo. The purpose of the March 4 meeting was to advise Pueblo area residents on the project and enlist their support for the effort. Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace convened the meeting and ColoRail President Jim Souby presented the detailed briefing. 50 people attended the session which included an extensive question and answer period. ColoRail members Bob Brewster, Gary Carter and John Bishop supported the meeting.
At the meeting, Commissioner Pace announced that Amtrak is evaluating the possibility of running “through cars” to and from Chicago as a less expensive way of getting service to Pueblo started. These cars would be switched off the train at La Junta and proceed to Pueblo. The schedule, forecasted ridership and economics have to be estimated to see if the so called “stub train” will make sense. If so, it will be the first building block toward passenger rail up and down the Front Range. Next stop: Colorado Springs?!
Advantages of the through car concept include the fact that the Southwest Chief would not have to extend its route by 85 miles and Amtrak has an existing crew base in La Junta. This would avoid the expensive improvements that would immediately be necessary on the Pueblo to Trinidad leg of the proposed reroute of the train. The disadvantage is that Pueblo and Walsenburg would still have to rely on thruway bus service to catch the westbound train. CDOT has indicated that it would investigate improved bus service to serve the train from Front Range communities if the train is initiated.
Check out this excellent story on the effort to restore the tracks of the Southwest Chief:
The future of the Southwest Chief train became more secure when the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $15.2 million “TIGER” grant to replace decaying tracks. It is the second grant the agency has awarded to save this historic, famous travel route through western Kansas, southeast Colorado, and northern New Mexico.
A coalition of state and local governments, Amtrak, and the BNSF Railway are contributing matching money of $9.23 million. The three states are each giving $1 million. Amtrak is contributing $4 million and the BNSF Railway $2 million. The BNSF has also pledged to pay for track maintenance for the restored line, an additional major contribution. Like last year, ColoRail has contributed to the match, as well.
This grant is one of 39 granted out of 627 applications. The breadth and depth of our coalition was a big factor in our success. The total of the requests amounted to $10 billion, which is testimony to the severe under-funding of our nation’s transportation infrastructure.
“TIGER” stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery. The program is helping many communities develop innovative approaches to transportation improvement. See the U.S. Department of Transportation announcement for this round of TIGER grants.
For a more complete story, see the October, 26, 2015 edition of the Pueblo Chieftain: SW Chief gets $15.2M grant
At the New Mexico House Transportation Committee interim hearing today a legal report was presented that concludes that the NM anti donation clause does not prohibit NM from funding repairs to the SW Chief line as long a public purpose in served.
A second report, an economic analysis of the train, concludes that economic losses $3.3 million per year would occur if the train is rerouted. This report did not consider losses to NM if the train is discontinued but about $10 plus million can be inferred. Report seems very conservative based on earlier analyses, but we must see the report to understand analysis.
Scouting Magazine online posted an article about the plight of the Southwest Chief. The train has delivered thousands of scouts to the Philmont Scout Ranch for years.