All Aboard

Should New Mexico subsidize a historic train route?

Michael Bosbonis says he doesn’t need the Travel Channel.

It was Thursday, May 8, and Bosbonis sipped on a bourbon-soda mix in the observation car of Amtrak's Southwest Chief. As he stared out the windows while the train shot alongside red mesas near Gallup on the storied route, he said the Travel Channel was already passing him by.

Bosbonis knows the Chief well, having moved to New Mexico on it nearly 20 years ago. The nurse still rides the rails regularly to visit family in Chicago and Los Angeles, the two cities that serve as endpoints for the 2,200 mile, 42-hour, daily route that's now in jeopardy because of a funding dispute between Amtrak and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, a freight line that leases tracks to the passenger service.

Amtrak has asked three states—Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico—to invest $4 million per year for 10 years for track repairs between Hutchinson, Kansas, and Raton, NM, that would allow long-distance passenger trains to travel their top speed of 79 miles per hour for up to another 40 years. Rather than pay for track upgrades, BNSF offered to reroute the Southwest Chief through Amarillo, Clovis and Belen.

The stakes are high for some communities in Northern New Mexico. Rerouting the Southwest Chief would kill its current service to Raton, Las Vegas and Lamy.

Colorado's governor recently pledged his state's financial support, but the chief executives of Kansas and New Mexico have balked at pitching in state taxpayer money to help finance a rail service established and subsidized by the federal government. Enrique Knell, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, tells SFR that the governor is not interested in sticking taxpayers here with "a large tab." Knell says the governor hopes a forthcoming state study will "provide useful information."

Bosbonis counts himself among the Northern New Mexicans who think the money is worth keeping the current route. For one, the Lamy station is a quick drive from his home in Eldorado. But he also argues the economic impact on Northern New Mexico rural communities of losing service would be devastating, particularly to Raton, whose train station is a destination for thousands of boys from across the nation each year due to its proximity to the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron.

An economic study presented to the state Legislature in November estimates that visitor spending by train travelers to New Mexico supports $29.3 million in total economic output annually, $8.9 million in workers' earnings and 368 jobs. Most passengers boarding and alighting in New Mexico are from outside the state, estimates the study.

The Chief stops at five stations in New Mexico. Albuquerque is the state's most popular hub, where more than 78,000 passengers boarded and alighted the Chief in 2012. Las Vegas had the fewest passengers that year, about 5,600.

Use of Amtrak has spiked over the past decade. Nationally, Amtrak ridership grew 55 percent from 1997 to 2012, according to a Brookings Institution study. Meanwhile, says the study, Amtrak, a quasi-public entity, has continued to bleed cash, with a $614 million operating deficit on routes traveling over 400 miles in 2011. In New Mexico, station activity rose 9 percent between 2009 and 2012, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Bill Snell, 70, a retired carpenter headed from Galesburg, Illinois, to California with his wife this month, argues that train travel will increase, especially among senior citizens, as airline travel becomes more expensive and aggravating. (A 16.5-hour ride from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, for example, costs $80 for a coach ticket, a third of a plane ticket in some cases. A sleeper car, however, runs two to eight times the cost of a coach seat.) He and others believe that a train ride, while longer, is a more dignified mode of travel than airlines, allowing for social interaction between passengers.

Joni Beach, headed for California for a surprise visit to her mother, agrees that airline travel is too troublesome.

"It's a hassle at the airports," she says. "And this is easy. Bring your cooler. Walk on. You don't have to go through security. You don't have to take your shoes off. I bought a violin and two bags extra. They don't care."

Bosbonis offered her a drink mixed with his Wild Turkey bourbon. (Beer on the train runs from $5 for a Budweiser to $7 for a Sierra Nevada Ale.) She declined, saying she brought her own beverages, and later fell asleep in a wraparound bench in the observation car. Bosbonis, meanwhile, talked with passengers late into the night as the train sped through Arizona.

"A couple years ago I took my nieces out to California," he said. "We did the Disneyland thing. We did the beach. We did Knotts Berry Farm. We did the SeaWorld. We did all of that. You know what they talk about the most? The frickin' train. Out of all the other tourist stuff, the train—because they saw the whole state go by. Because it gave them an appreciation of what they have here."

Santa Fe Reporter

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