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Step up for passenger train service

July 6, 2018 GMT

Keeping Amtrak train service open and running through Northern New Mexico should be a goal that unites politicians, business leaders local elected officials of all stripes. Yet in the past few years, as one threat after another has emerged to rail service in parts of New Mexico, our leaders have not presented a united front.

Leaders from the small towns of the north — Las Vegas, N.M., Springer and Raton — have lobbied hard for upgrading tracks, more federal and state dollars and most of all, continued service. Legislators in neighboring states, Kansas and Colorado, have done their share. Our Congressional delegation, for the most part, has backed train service, as have New Mexico state legislators. Absent, for the most part, is Gov. Susana Martinez, who seems to miss entirely the importance of passenger rail to New Mexico’s tourism mystique as well as to the economic well-being of our rural northern towns.

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Now, we learn that Amtrak is considering ending passenger train service from Dodge City, Kan., to Albuquerque and replacing its Southwest Chief route through that area with buses. To Amtrak, this is what needs to happen — upgrading tracks is too expensive and the costs of improvements is estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars.

Local communities have dug in to find the money, seeking and winning federal grants. Now, Amtrak must do its part. A grant won by Colfax County needs matching funds that Amtrak may not match. Bus service, while better than no public transportation, is no substitute for passenger train service.

Yes, money will have to be spent fixing up tracks and installing safety equipment — including a section owned by the private BNSF Railway and other tracks operated by the Rail Runner commuter train. (Had Gov. Martinez not stopped the purchase of the BNSF stretch of tracks, they would have been upgraded; but she came in to office determined to undo much of what Gov. Bill Richardson had done, including the promised purchase.) The Legislature needs to be aggressive in promoting the repair of that stretch of tracks before it’s too late.

For rural residents, trains often are the only affordable transportation choices. Plus, the train stops where they live. There’s no driving to Santa Fe or Albuquerque to catch a plane.

The Southwest Chief route is popular, too, with some 363,000 passengers riding in 2017, up slightly from six years ago.

How many of those riders would want to get off the train and board a bus? This could affect ridership along the entire route — and give Amtrak more reasons to reduce passenger train service.

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Before that happens, local, state and federal governments must do the necessary work of investing in infrastructure. Heck, find private investors as well. But keep the trains running, on time and with passengers aplenty.

They will stop in historic Raton, where passengers will depart and head out to the Boy Scout camp at Philmont, later to return as adults. Other passengers will depart in Las Vegas, perhaps staying at the Plaza in Old Town or (some day) at the remodeled La Castañeda by the tracks. Approaching Santa Fe, they will leave the train at Lamy, just as thousands of previous train travelers have done before them.

Train travel is good for New Mexico. Our leaders need to work harder to keep the trains chugging along.

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