Privatize Chama Train

There has been a lot of talk recently about the economic situation in Chama, see here and here. The town is very reliant on the tourist train that saw a trestle burned this summer. That is a shame and I am sympathetic to the folks of Chama, but that doesn’t mean I think average New Mexicans should pay the bill to restore train service.

I explain what should be done in a letter that was published in today’s Business Journal.

Privatize Chama’s tourist train

It was only a matter of time. The town of Chama, the economy of which is heavily reliant on the state-owned Cumbres & Toltec train, is in need of a taxpayer bailout because a train trestle fire this summer has limited train traffic to the town.

While it is hard to feel anything but sympathy for Chama residents whose businesses have been impacted, it is silly for taxpayers in one part of the state (or nation) to subsidize tourist attractions in other parts of the state (or nation). Tourist attractions should either be privately run or funded through local taxes.

But this is not the case. Rather, the train is reliant on the taxpayer.

Just this year, New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman requested $1 million in federal dollars for the Cumbres & Toltec. This comes on top of annual contributions from the governments of New Mexico and Colorado which jointly own the railroad. This makes no sense in the best of economic times: With core government programs on the chopping block and federal and state taxes on their way up, government needs to stick to the basics.

The Cumbres & Toltec should be privately owned like the similar Durango-Silverton train. Rather than a taxpayer bailout, we should look for ways to make the Cumbres & Toltec — and other tourist attractions — profitable, private enterprises.

Paul J. Gessing
Rio Grande Foundation

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7 Replies to “Privatize Chama Train”

  1. Good article Paul. Everyone gains. In this time of reduced tax dollars, the state should give the railroad to a Chama based private corporation. Free of debt it could easily borrow enough to be back in business in 2011. Eliminating red tape alone makes it worth it.

    There will be a lot more opportunities like this in coming months and years. Keep them coming.

  2. Here is the letter I wrote to the Journal–
    Editor, Outlook:

    If Mr. Gessing had truly reviewed the history of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, he would have learned that it has indeed been operated by private companies for almost all of its forty years. He would have also learned that the two states (Colorado and New Mexico) purchased an abandoned and derelict property that was returned to life by dozens of volunteers including professional railroaders.

    Results of private operation of the scenic railroad over forty years have been extremely mixed. Only one such company was prepared to invest in the start up expenses and skilled people needed to operated the line over a span of years. But – that company left the railroad in the 1990s. In recent years, the railroad has been managed by its C&TSRR Commission (established in 1977) and operated by non-profit companies. These organizations have been woefully undercapitalized and deficient in needed skills in marketing, long-term planning, and steam locomotive maintenance. Nevertheless, there have been some real accomplishments, notably the on-going trackage rehabilitation and upgrade program. Trackage and roadbed are the foundations of railroad operations, leading to successful operations. Over the years, many skilled people have steadfastly supported the railroad as employees and volunteers in historic preservation.

    Notably absent from the Scenic Railroad effort has been a long-range business development plan laying out the needs of the railroad in the coming years. Some of these needs were addressed in the original historic preservation study prepared by Dr. Spencer Wilson and this writer, published by UNM Press in 1980. (Copies are currently available from the Friends of the C&TSRR.)

    This year would be an ideal time for Mr. Gessing and his business colleagues to offer their services to the Scenic Railroad management to prepare a long range plan of investment and skill-building to indeed place the railroad on a path toward fruitful private operation. How about it, Mr. Gessing?

    With respect,

    Vernon J. Glover, Railroad Historian
    704 Renaissance Loop SE
    Rio Rancho, NM 87124

    1. Thanks for the note, Mr. Glover. We at the Rio Grande Foundation are a small non-profit, thus I won’t be able to take you up on your issue relating to a private management plan for the railroad. It may be that privatization is not enough to squeeze the efficiency out of the Cumbres & Toltec to make it worthwhile.

      I do know that the Durango to Silverton railroad is privately owned and managed and wonder if that might provide the model for the Cumbres & Toltec?

    1. I actually agree with part of your comment, Andrew. That is a start, right? Railroads SHOULD be treated the same way as roads. In other words, the users should pay for their construction and upkeep. That is the way it works for roads and that is the way it works for freight railroads, but that is not what happens in this country for Amtrak, the RailRunner, the Chama Railroad, and most other passenger railroads.

      1. No Paul, you know damn well that is not how it works with roads.

        Roads are there regardless of economic conditions and are mostly paid for by property taxes & that is how it should be for rail lines too.

        I’m for the tolling of roads, just as the train users should pay fares, though I don’t expect to total cost recovery from fares or tolls.

        1. Okay, local (ie. neighborhood) roads are indeed paid for with gas taxes, but most major thoroughfares are paid for with gas taxes. If passenger trains had to support themselves, they’d die except for in the Northeast Corridor. Toll roads would be universal. Besides, while motorists are the primary beneficiaries of roads, you can’t run an ambulance or police patrol on a train. So, there are “externalities” of roads where there are not for trains.

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