Riders of Amtrak’s long-distance Southwest Chief service – especially those in western Kansas – got $16 million worth of good news when the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the TIGER grant program’s latest winners on March 9.
Colfax County, New Mexico, which acted as the lead agency for this round of a multi-state, multi-year effort to rehabilitate tracks and other infrastructure dating from, in some places, the late 1940s, had requested $17,526,115. This is the third TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant awarded to the effort since 2014.
This round of the grant, known as TIGER 9, will help pay to replace 42 miles of track between Hutchinson, Kan., and Las Animas, Colo., that was laid down between 1949 and 1955; and to make infrastructure improvements along the New Mexico-owned portion of the Southwest Chief’s route in Santa Fe County, including eliminating what the application called “a signaling system worthy of a museum,” replacing a broken and eroded culvert, and installing new rail, ties, and rock-slide fence in an area known as the “Devil’s Throne.”
In addition to the $16 million grant, $9,189,000 in local matching funds was provided by the transportation departments of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, plus communities and counties along the route, non-governmental organizations, Amtrak and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, whose tracks host the Southwest Chief on its daily runs (once in each direction) between Chicago and Los Angeles.
“Kansas ranks in the top ten for railroad miles in the nation, with that comes a necessity to continue to rehabilitate and modernize our railroads,” Kansas’ Transportation Secretary Richard Carlson said. “With the investment into the Southwest Chief, Kansas looks forward to working with our other state partners in providing this valuable service.”
As Colfax County’s application noted, the train is a vital connection to the national passenger rail network for communities along its route:
“The Southwest Chief is more than just a transportation and/or vacation alternative for folks traveling across the county. It is an economic pipeline bringing thousands of visitors to the area, reviving the American entrepreneurial spirit that built this county and creating employment opportunities for the region’s flourishing tourist industry. Continued investment of the train serves the public well. Annual economic impact of the train has been calculated at $33M and approximately 400 jobs for the region.”
The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper also noted this theme in its coverage of the grant award. Citing information from the state’s Congressional delegation, the newspaper noted:
“Every summer, more than 22,000 Scouts and others arrive at Philmont — and 20 percent of them travel on the Southwest Chief, according to a fact sheet. Those traveling to the ranch make up half the boardings and exits at the Amtrak station in Raton.
“Total Amtrak boardings and exits in the state for fiscal year 2017 were 124,253, with 15,122 logged in Raton, 10,768 in Lamy and 4,487 in Las Vegas.”
The newspaper also noted that Amtrak employs 51 New Mexico residents and paid them wages totaling almost $4.6 million in fiscal year 2017.
This newest TIGER grant funds work that builds upon previous construction in 2015-17, funded by TIGER 6 and 7 grants.
TIGER 6 contributed to track replacement and rehabilitation work on the La Junta Subdivision in Kansas and Colorado, involving the replacement of 60-year old rail, associated turnouts, and crossings. TIGER 7 continued the La Junta rehabilitation work while bringing New Mexico into the scope with tie replacement and trackwork along the state-owned section of the line east of Albuquerque, N.M.
Those grants, sought by Kansas and Colorado in cooperation with local communities very likely saved the Southwest Chief from being rerouted the Denver Post reported in 2015. For more on the prior threat to service from deteriorated tracks, see here and here.