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Salida to the U.S.A. by Passenger Train

By Forrest Whitman

Passenger rail travel can be accessed conveniently with a three-hour bus ride from Salida to Denver. It’s going to be even more convenient in the future if the Colorado Passenger Rail Commission has its way. I host a rail show on KHEN radio (106.9 or on podcast) and attend many rail meetings. I talk to folks who’d much rather get on board a train than put up with the hassle of an airport. They like watching a spring “bomb cyclone” from the lounge car rather than from their own car.

Listeners tell me they regularly take the bus from Salida to Union Station in Denver using the excellent “Bustang” service. Others are aware that we have good bus service to Pueblo and wonder when they can again catch a train there.

Rail passengers well know when they get off the Bustang at Union Station, Denver, they have access to the California Zephyr. That’s a good train serving the California Bay Area (and trains to the whole West Coast). Eastbound it goes to Chicago where my beloved Cubs and White Sox play. Some riders even bus or auto to Glenwood Springs so they can soak before catching the afternoon Zephyr east or west.


Passenger service to Pueblo has been slow in coming. One listener tells me she hates the drive across Kansas which parallels the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and the Southwest Chief. She can wave to the patrons in the sightseer lounge. She knows she can take the bus from Salida to Pueblo, but is frustrated that she can’t board the Chief in Kansas yet.

Actually, she may not have to wait too much longer. AMTRAK is working now on a dedicated through-car from Pueblo to attach to the Southwest Chief in La Junta. That will get her to Kansas City or Chicago without crossing Kansas in her automobile.

At a recent rail commission meeting, we were told both by AMTRAK and BNSF that the through car is happening. There are some technical problems, including the fact that BNSF trains now employ a double track to La Junta. Those tracks are dedicated to northbound on one track and southbound on the other. Some dispatching changes would have to be made by the BNSF, a willing partner in the effort.

Last week I came away with a good feeling from a meeting of the Colorado Passenger Rail Commission (officially the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission). This has more bipartisan support than many a state agency enjoys. Senator Leroy Garcia, in an interview, underlined that support. He’s president of the Colorado Senate and knows about the popularity of passenger rail.

It’s a fact that the Chief generates 18 million dollars in tourist revenue and serves thousands of folks who have no other means of transportation. Alan Affeldt knows all about that. He’s rejuvenating the old Santa Fe hotels along that line. He owns the Casteneda in Las Vegas, New Mexico, La Posada in Winslow Arizona, and the Legal Tender in Lamy, New Mexico.

Other interviews with Colorado Division of Transportation rail staffers and Randy Grauber, Rail Commission Director of Programs, were an eye opener for me. I knew the commission has representatives from AMTRAK, Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF railroad and others. I didn’t know the strong support represented by Front Range governments. As I attended a recent commission meeting in Colorado Springs, I was impressed by the depth of knowledge not just by Grauber but by all of the representatives there.

There are lots of reasons to get on the bus to a passenger train from Salida. In the future, we’ll have the ability to board in Pueblo and take the tracks (freight only now) on to Colorado Springs and Denver. That will happen by public/private partnerships already on the drawing board. The new consultant at the passenger rail commission will be working on those partnerships.

There is real urgency in the passenger rail mission. It’s generally conceded that even light rail and interstate highway “build out” won’t solve Denver area gridlock. Cities like Colorado Springs and Fort Collins are deeply impacted by gridlock now. Highways are only a temporary solution. For instance, the new lane being built to widen I-25 from Denver to Colorado Springs is expected to be “full” in five years.

Meanwhile, some improvement is being made on existing rail. 28 miles of eastern Colorado “bad news” rail is being replaced, from bolted rail to continuous rail (made in Pueblo). This raises speeds from 37 mph to 80 mph.

All of our rail advocacy groups (like COLORAIL) keep pushing to save our existing national rail network. Western U.S. senators keep nagging the long distance train haters (especially the CEO of AMTRAK) about the benefits of lines like the Southwest Chief. For instance, benefits from just that one train include 18 million bucks in tourist revenue and service to some 30,000 people with no other public transportation (according to a university study from last year).

Readers don’t necessarily need to keep all of those train facts in mind. It’s just fun to get on the bus in Salida or Buena Vista and relax because you have a great train ride ahead. It’s nice to imagine having that relaxed drink in the sightseer lounge car while you know your bed is being turned down by the car attendant. Watch the scenery go by and forget that huge hassle in DIA. All aboard! 

Forrest Whitman spends a lot of time hanging out on passenger trains and talking with fellow “train-sexuals” on his KHEN radio show, “On the Rails” and on podcast.