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All Aboard the Southwest Chief from Pueblo?

By Forrest Whitman

“A review by BNSF Railway of needed infrastructure improvements to support that service would be complete before Christmas,” said Ray Lang of AMTRAK. He gave that quote at a Southwest Chief Commission meeting to the Colorado Association of Railroad Passengers.

The folks in Pueblo have worked for several years to make passenger trains again pull out of the lovely old Union Depot (the one with the giant bronze nude statue of Diana in front).

Just a few years back the whole train was in jeopardy. The Chief runs over rail installed in the 1950s by the Santa Fe in Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas. It was worn-out jointed rail. That’s what led several cities along the way, involving all three states, to see what could be done.


The first thing they had to do was to secure cooperation from the BNSF railroad. The railroad pledged $4 million plus labor if they paid only their share of the cost. One can see their point of view. The segment from La Junta to Albuquerque rarely sees any trains other than the AMTRAK Chief. The whole route from Lamy, New Mexico, to the eastern edge of Kansas was in such bad shape that the railroad was thinking of re-routing the Chief through Texas.

Next, political support was needed to secure a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the federal government. That has produced $27.6 million and an upgrade for 127 miles of the worst segments. 127 miles is not enough. The Chief has lost a lot of time running through Kansas this summer. Yellow “slow order” signs are put up to slow the train over a bad stretch track, track that needs to be replaced. A new TIGER VIII grant would finish the line all the way from Albuquerque to eastern Kansas.

Political help has been forthcoming; U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet was spotted riding recently. Pueblo County commissioners led by Sal Pace, the Colorado State Chief Commission, state Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, reps. Ed Vigil, D- Costilla County and Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, were among many to give support. Towns along the route have given money, including those as small as Las Vegas, New Mexico, La Junta, Colorado – even tiny Mora, New Mexico. The three states, AMTRAK and the towns have raised $8 million.

Lobbying does help. The Ski Train from Denver’s Union station to the slopes above Winter Park will operate this year mostly due to the long campaign of one AMTRAK conductor, Brad Schwarwelter, and his COLORAIL buddies. COLORAIL continues its push to one day have passenger rail running from Wyoming to Trinidad, Colorado. This new Pueblo service could be the dawn of that hope.

The Chief works economically too. Continuous welded rail (rolled rail) made in the Pueblo steel plant helps the Chief hum along at 80 M.P.H. Steelmaking provides good union jobs and secures the pride many workers take in producing “rails for the nation.”

A study by CSU Pueblo estimates twenty boardings a day for a ticket revenue of $1,179,00. They add to that 6.7 million dollars in related economic benefits.

Railroading is fun. Some of us attended a railroad fair in Pueblo recently and heard a bit about a switching challenge rail fans will like. A dedicated Chicago car will load up at the Union Depot in Pueblo. Then it will run to La Junta (picking carefully through the yards first). There it will be joined onto the rear of the Southwest Chief and go on to Chicago. The dispatchers (many miles away) will have to be on their toes to make it work. The same switch will happen on the way back, of course.

Passenger rail from Central Colorado is on the way. All aboard!