The 'Southwest Chief' belongs where it is

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Following the trail still used by Amtrak's Southwest Chief, Santa Fe F3s lift the first section of the westbound El Capitan up Raton Pass near Wootton, Colo., in June 1950. R H. Kindig
Of all of Amtrak’s long-distance routes, the one that appeals to me the most — hands down — is the Southwest Chief’s trek from Chicago to Los Angeles, especially that loneliest of sections across Kansas and southeast Colorado into northern New Mexico, the original main line of the Santa Fe Railway.

I think it would be hard to imagine a more remote piece of passenger railroad. Not so much because of the terrain or the climate — the routes of the California Zephyr, the Sunset Limited, and the Empire Builder throw up rugged challenges of their own.

No, out here on the old Santa Fe it’s the sheer distance between outposts of railroad civilization. This must be the quietest stretch of main line on BNSF Railway. There are local freight trains on sections east of La Junta, Colo., a regular manifest between Pueblo and Dodge City, and the occasional through train of Powder River coal off the Joint Line at Trinidad. But west of Trinidad there’s nothing except Amtrak.

So every day, trains 3 and 4 venture out across barren territory, pretty much on their own for several hundred miles, not unlike a London-bound 777 entering the oceanic void east of Newfoundland.

All this is why the Chief’s route has been under threat for a couple of decades. There’s no incentive for BNSF to spend its own money to keep the track up to passenger-train standards, and Amtrak has little to spend. Fortunately, two recent federal TIGER grants paid to replace rail and resurface roadbed in western Kansas and eastern Colorado. But that left a significant section in play: 200 miles between Trinidad, Colo., and Lamy, N.Mex., which includes the scenic highlights of Raton Pass and Glorieta Pass.

Mikado 4023 fights the Kansas wind as it surges west with a freight at Syracuse, 20 miles east of the Colorado state line, on Oct. 8, 1941. John W. Maxwell
Last week brought conditional good news: the U.S. Department of Transportation and other entities are ready to award upwards of $25 million toward rebuilding the remaining section, a combination of $16 million in federal money and another $9.2 million that includes funds pledged by Amtrak, BNSF, the states of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, 17 counties and cities along the route, and a couple of citizen groups.

The funds would be used mainly to install 24,000 new ties between Lamy and Trinidad and to address repairs to sidings and culverts, as well as remediate rockslide issues at Devil’s Throne curve, south of Santa Fe. Alas, one certain casualty of all this would be the remaining semaphore signals that still beckon photographers at places such as Wagon Mound and west of Las Vegas, N.Mex. Several sets of these vintage blades still help control what little traffic there is.

So there might be redemption for this historic line, except for one major caveat: Amtrak’s commitment for its portion of the funding is tentative, on hold while the railroad’s management debates a longer-term strategy for long-distance trains. That’s enough to make any Amtrak passenger nervous.

Let’s assume the long-distance train survives to fight another day. If there’s still going to be a Southwest Chief, it should stay where it is, plying its ancestral tracks. An easy call to make for a Classic Trains blogger, I suppose, but one I make enthusiastically, in accordance with this magazine’s mandate.

Alco PA No. 57 leads a PB and another PA over the top of Glorieta Pass with the all-Pullman Chief for Los Angeles in October 1947. Preston George
I get the counter argument. It’s rooted in logic. One might reasonably ask why a lot of money should be spent to prop one a single daily train over vast stretches of mostly dormant track, especially when the Chief presumably could be moved to BNSF’s Transcon main line via the Belen Cutoff.    

The Transcon is an attractive option, a world-class, double-track railroad whose thick schedule of intermodal trains guarantees BNSF’s constant focus. The route includes a major city, Amarillo. It has scenery of its own: the big bridge over the Pecos River at Fort Sumner, the high desert surrounding Mountainair, the brief but exciting transit of Abo Canyon above Belen. And the Transcon is not without its own passenger heritage. In AT&SF days, it was the route of the San Francisco Chief, itself a worthy train.

But tell that to the residents of Hutchinson, Dodge City, Garden City, Lamar, La Junta, Trinidad, Lamy, and Las Vegas, people who’ve been using the train for generations. The Southwest Chief and its Santa Fe forebears are deeply rooted out here. The trains are as much a part of the landscape as mesas and mule deer.

At least a dozen heavyweight cars trail 4-8-4 3767 making time in an undated photo at Isleta, N.Mex., near the junction of the Santa Fe's principal passenger route via Albuquerque and the line today known as BNSF's Transcon. Ed. W. Bewley
Before writing this, I went looking for a little inspiration in Classic Trains’ AT&SF photo files. You can see here what I found. Consider the magnificent desolation in John W. Maxwell’s image of a stout Santa Fe 2-8-2, hustling a 58-car westbound freight at Syracuse, Kans., in October 1941. Or Dick Kindig’s portrait of the westbound El Capitan, running behind green flags as First 21 as it grinds past Wootton, Colo., doing 15 mph in the teeth of Raton Pass.

Farther west, Preston George framed a trio of Warbonnet Alco PAs cresting the summit of Glorieta with a 14-car Chief in October 1947. South of Albuquerque, almost to the junction with the line from Belen at Dalies, a lordly 4-8-4 does track speed as it splits the semaphores at the end of a siding at Isleta.

For me, these images evoke a railroad like no other. They are evidence that the Santa Fe’s original visionary, Col. Cyrus K. Holliday, knew what he was doing when, in April 1869, he stood in a grove outside Topeka and pledged that his railroad would conquer the West by following the ruts of covered wagons along the legendary Santa Fe Trail. He lived up to that pledge, and every day passengers can rediscover his vision on the Southwest Chief.

Logic be damned. Keep the Chief where it is.

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