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I’ll limit my sourcing to protect the innocent — the person and I really were just chatting. But I mentioned I would check with the powers that be at Amtrak and Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Sometimes those rumors and gossip are true despite what the corporate honchos say.
Let me digress: The rumor arose during a trip on a 9½-hour Sunset Limited round trip between Houston and New Orleans earlier this month. I was returning to Louisiana for a reunion with an old New Orleans high school-era friend and to catch up with some New Orleans Times-Picayune people whom I knew through Internet connections. I’ll concede that a flight or car would have been faster, but I love trains and I was in no rush. So why not? I could forgo the intrusive TSA and hassle of crowded seating on a flight. And, I could avoid the fatigue and hassle of driving.
My reserved coach seat was on the upper level of a Superliner car. (See the options here.) It was as plush and comfortable as any recliner with a leg and foot rest, a tray table, reading light and a standard 110-volt power outlet. One car ahead was the Superliner observation/lounge car with a bar and snack bar and ahead of that in the consist was the Superliner dining car. Ahead of the diner were two sleeping cars. The Sunset is a long-distance train, with the eastbound service originating in Los Angeles. The Houston-New Orleans leg is the last long leg of a multiday trip.
This was one of the best travel experiences I’ve had in a very long time. You can stay in your seat and sleep; or, you can move around the train whenever you want. And if you move around, you have the chance to meet folks, most of whom are very friendly. Eastbound, I had a cup of very good Amtrak coffee with a Dutch postdoctoral pharmacology student taking a break from her fellowship in California to visit friends in New Orleans. I chatted a great deal of the time with a woman going to New Orleans to help move her niece back to Houston and a young man going to Georgia to help with a family matter. We shared a dinner in the diner after visiting in the observation car. All three of us agreed the food was top-notch with excellent service.
I’ll admit that the eastbound trip ran 2½ hours late; and Amtrak’s on-time performance isn’t as good as anyone would like it. But, remember, Amtrak doesn’t own any of the track and in this case the single line through the Houston station on the Union Pacific tracks was blocked by a broken down U.P. train. U.P.’s classification yard east of Houston also held us hostage for 40 minutes, but we were early enough that we arrived only two minutes late.
After I resettled in Amarillo, I started to run down the rumor. It’s not true for now.
At this point, the official positions of BNSF and Amtrak are the plan to keep the Southwest Chief on its route through Kansas and La Junta, Colo., paralleling the Front Range and over Raton Pass into New Mexico to serve Lamy (Santa Fe) and Albuquerque. However, some decisions about funding and upgrading either the Raton Pass route or putting the Southwest Chief on another route must be made by December 2014, according to an April 12, 2012, Amtrak news release.
Neither Amtrak’s Marc Magliari nor BNSF's Steve Forsberg would speculate about the rerouting, but Magliari noted that Amrak doesn’t want to add service at the expense of another service. And, of course, where and when Amtrak serves communities is a political decision. With a Republican governor and a current GOP majority in the United States House of Representatives, New Mexico is in a strong position to defend its turf.
As a matter of national policy, I would like to see a shift in federal resources from subsidizing air travel, airports (as much as I love airplanes) and trucks using the highways to a more robust rail system. Rather than taking the Southwest Chief off its current route, I’d like to see service from Amarillo to Albuquerque, where the cars could connect to the Southwest Chief. This would, of course, take congressional support and unfortunately, Amtrak is under pressure of cuts from the Republicans. Further, the congressman who represents Amarillo, Mac Thornberry, is more likely to toe the line of his GOP masters than break with them to add Amtrak service anywhere. But who knows?
Lest someone jump in and say that this would be better if a private company did it, remember that private companies can’t make money without a subsidy (which is essentially what Amtrak is). That’s why rail service succumbed to the forces of the airline and highway lobbies in the 1960s. As Forsberg pointed out, Japan’s Bullet Train operates at a profit only because the Japanese government capitalized it at $500 billion and the trains in Europe run with government subsidies. Let’s not kid ourselves. The airline, highway, trucking and automobile industries are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, so please don’t scream socialism at me on this one.
The bottom line is this: The United States needs a comprehensive transportation policy that gives passenger rail a seat at the table. Further, I believe Amarillo could support at least service to Albuquerque, if not, in addition, rail service to Fort Worth.
I wish we could have a community conversation about those issues.