New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich is very proud of himself. He just got the US Senate to pass a bill committing $50 million (more debt via the Chinese government) to keep the Amtrak Southwest Chief running through New Mexico. Amtrak had threatened to replace the route with buses, but the better plan would just be to abandon the “bustling” route that enters New Mexico at Raton, heads through Las Vegas, and Lamy before ending up in Albuquerque. The train heads on to Gallup and points west, but that was never threatened.
The Southwest Chief loses $61 million annually on the Southwest Chief alone and the simple truth is that for anyone traveling on a schedule, Amtrak is simply not competitive outside of the densely-populated Northeast and parts of the West Coast.
On Rio Grande Foundation business, the head of the Foundation is heading to Chicago from Albuquerque. He needs to be in Chicago on Wednesday for a meeting that starts at 3pm. That actually works “perfectly” for Amtrak’s daily Southwest Chief schedule (it gets in to Chicago daily at 3:15, IF it is running on time). But, instead of flying out the day of the event on a direct flight at 9:15AM, he’d have to leave Albuquerque nearly a DAY before at 12:10PM and take the train overnight.
Believe it or not, the return trip ALSO works relatively well for Amtrak as the conference ends at noon on Friday and the daily train westbound leaves at 3pm. But, instead of arriving back in Albuquerque in time to tuck his kids into bed that same day (and having a few hours in the afternoon to tour The Windy City), by train our fearless leader would get back to the Duke City (again, assuming the train is on-time) by 4PM the following day. If you are retired and have nowhere particular to be, but if you are traveling on business and want to get home to your wife and kids, it makes no sense whatsoever.
Trains are fun if you have the time but even if we were to construct a nationwide network of high-speed rail (a multi-trillion dollar proposition given the experience of California) trains don’t make much sense in the wide-open American West. Rather than wasting more of money, we’d be better off if Amtrak limited its routes to major population center or better-still, just sold off the system to a private company.
Transportation expert Randal O’Toole recently rode the Southwest Chief (among other routes) and provides his commentary here. He has also written in some detail about the track issues facing Amtrak in New Mexico and the desire by Amtrak to get out of this money-losing service.