by Carol Bridge
RATON — The day was bright, as were spirits, on Saturday morning as Sen. Martin Heinrich and a collection of public officials gathered at the Raton Amtrak station to celebrate a milestone in the push to save the Southwest Chief.
On Aug. 1, the U.S. Senate passed 92-6 a transportation spending bill which includes an amendment whose language is meant to ensure the operation of the Southwest Chief through the 2018-2019 fiscal year. Heinrich was among a group of Western senators who pushed the amendment through to Senate passage.
Organizers said the event, sponsored by the Colfax County Democratic Party as part of Heinrich’s senate re-election campaign, was planned to coincide with the arrival of the morning Los Angeles-bound train, but for some reason the westbound Southweest Chief arrived and departed some 30 minutes early. Local officials spoke about the importance of rail service to Raton and the many other rural enclaves along the Southwest Chief’s Los Angeles-to-Chicago route.
Shelley O’Neil, representing Philmont Scout Ranch, spoke about the 22,000 scouts arriving at the station in Raton yearly to begin their wilderness adventure and what an economic boon the train is to the area. She thanked Heinrich for his work in ensuring that “this positive adventure for the nation’s youth will continue.” She noted that most of these scouts come from the East and that the Southwest Chief is their introduction to the beauty and vastness of the American West.
Laura Brewer, Raton Ambassadors, spoke about the importance of the train service to the fabric of the community and how it is a gateway for many people to see and enjoy Raton. Mayor Neil Segotta gave a brief history of the railroad and its connection to the Santa Fe Trail and thanked both Heinrich and Colfax County Commissioner Bill Sauble “for their persistence and knowledge in pushing this financial assistance to and through Congress.”
Raton City Manager Scott Berry spoke about the need for the country to make investment in infrastructure. He praised Heinrich for his keen interest in the problem and that the senator’s office had given prompt feedback. Berry spoke about Heinrich’s concern and interest in our region and noted that his office was on point about past issues and related stories about the Track Fire, preserving the watershed and local problems with Miner’s Colfax Medical Center. He then introduced the keynote speaker to the sound of applause from the crowd.
Heinrich praised Colfax County, Philmont Scout Ranch, the City of Raton and local businesses and citizens for their part in this effort. He told about the bipartisan congressional support the amendment got from Congress. He also noted that Rep. Ben Ray Lujan and Sen. Tom Udall were also a large part of this effort and that he intends to continue to be a strong advocate for rural America. He called for an improved rail service for the Southwest Chief as well as improved infrastructure for all of rural New Mexico including roads, water supply and broadband. The transportation bill, H.R. 6147 as amended, was returned to the House of Representatives on Aug. 2, where it will either be approved, rejected, or assigned to conference to hammer out the House and Senate differences. As of press time, no further action has been taken on the bill.
But House passage of the amended bill may be only one hurdle on the way to the Southwest Chief’s long-term salvation. The amendment ensures funding through the fiscal year, but does not address possible long-term funding needs. And earlier this year, Amtrak conditioned its portion of TIGER grant funding for the Southwest Chief on, among other things, implementation of positive train control by Dec. 31 on a stretch of New Mexico-owned track between Albuquerque and Leyote used by Rail Runner Express. Rio Metro Regional Transit Authority Director Terry Doyle said the district is working with the Federal Railroad Administration to draft a risk-management plan which might allow the district to get an extension of the Dec. 31 deadline.