Belen, Rio Communities on board to try and entice Amtrak new route

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Two local municipalities have joined Valencia County in requesting Amtrak study the possibility of bringing its passenger train the Southwest Chief, through the city of Belen and then on to points south and west.

Earlier this month, county commissioners unanimously supported a resolution calling on Amtrak to perform a cost-benefit analysis of rerouting the line through Amarillo, Clovis and finally to Belen, instead of the northerly route it currently takes through Lamy and Albuquerque.

The cities of Belen and Rio Communities have joined the county in its push, with both boards unanimously approving their resolutions.

Rio Communities Mayor Mark Gwinn said having the Chief run through Belen would be a great thing.

"We did have a southern route in the '60s and '70s. I think it would bring a lot of tourism to this area," Gwinn said at the council's July 22 meeting after the adoption of the resolution. "I'm sure there will still be folks wanting to go to Santa Fe and that can help pay for the Road Runner. If that happens, I can see the Rail Runner stepping up to another level. Santa Fe benefits from about 350,000 people a year coming in on Amtrak."

Belen city councilors approved the resolution at their July 14 meeting.

In addition to local interest, the New Mexico Department of Transportation responded to the county after receiving a copy of the resolution it passed.

In a letter dated July 17, the department's transit and rail director Frank Sharpless notified Valencia County Manager Jeff Condrey that the department has contracted with a firm with extensive passenger rail and economic analysis experience to develop estimates of potential ridership on the Southwest Chief if it is relocated through Amarillo to Belen.

"This study is also identifying the origins and destinations of riders to and from current New Mexico Southwest Chief stations as well as projecting the origins and destinations of passengers to and from the potential new stations in Belen, Vaughn and Clovis," Sharpless wrote.

He went on to say that the study is scheduled for completion in about two weeks.

On Tuesday, BNSF announced it is beginning work on a $68 million project to construct a 9.3-mile long second main track west of Vaughn, which is about 120 miles west of Clovis. The project is part of BNSF's previously announced 2014 capital plan of about $5 billion, of which $2.3 billion is being invested in BNSF's core network and related assets.

"This double-track project is the latest in BNSF's continued investment in rail infrastructure in New Mexico and reflects our strong commitment to our customers and communities here," said Steve Curtright, general manager. "The additional capacity will improve velocity and enhance rail service along one of BNSF's most important routes."

Construction of the new segment will eliminate one of only four remaining single track sections on BNSF's route between Chicago and Los Angeles. Grading work will begin this month, with track construction in early 2015. The project is expected to be in service in mid-2015.

When this project is complete, just 25 miles of single track will remain on BNSF's Southern Transcon route, including a 2.3-mile single-track segment at Ft. Sumner, N.M., over the Pecos River.

Using the data developed from its study, NMDOT will execute a contract to conduct a detailed economic impact study of relocating the Chief to the southern alignment, Sharpless wrote, noting that the department anticipates the second study will be done in October. The results would then be presented to the governor's office and Legislature.

BNSF owns the rail line used by the Amtrak Southwest Chief that makes the Chicago to Los Angeles run.

But the segment between Albuquerque and southwestern Kansas doesn't generate enough freight to maintain the track to the passenger train's traveling speed standard of 79 mph, and BNSF is asking for multi-million dollar annual subsidies from New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas to maintain the Southwest Chief's current route.

According to the resolution, Gov. Susana Martinez has publicly opposed a state subsidy of passenger rail service.

The resolution calls for the proposed alternate route and realignment analysis be paid for by Amtrak and/or the federal government. If the alternate route is used, the Southwest Chief would be traveling on BNSF's transcontinental line and wouldn't need continued subsidies.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.