Last Days in the Empire of High Hopes

When her train clattered over the Vermejo River, 12-year-old Martha Betty Putnam stopped briefly at Colfax, N.M., a town boasting two railroads and 100 or more people wishing coal to be big business again. Here she crossed the Dawson Railway, a steel river of coal flowing from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains toward distant copper smelters. The raw beauty of northeast New Mexico — tall timber on her right, infinite range on her left — awed the Illinois girl aboard the Rocky Mountain & Santa Fe Railroad as the steam engine in front chuffed along the Santa Fe Trail toward Cimarron, once the seat of empire. From there staccato exhaust echoed into the Sangres before Martha Betty stepped down at the year-old Cimarroncita Ranch Camp for Girls to spend the summer.

The predecessor railroad boasted Pacific in its name, envisioned Ute Park a mile beyond the camp as a destination resort, and blasted a tunnel higher up for its next move into the Moreno Valley. With abundant timber, coal and other natural resources ripe for exploitation, boosters in the Cimarron News and Cimarron Citizen in 1911 crowed, “There does not seem to be any way to keep the Cimarron country from becoming the Florida, the southern California, and the Klondike of New Mexico all rolled into one.” Instead the railroad ran short of cash and ambition at Ute Park dashing the steam-driven aspirations of hopeful Taos 40 twisted miles farther west.

Derelict passenger and freight cars mark the site of Colfax, N.M., once the junction of two railroads.

Saltpeter Mountain rises to the north of Colfax, N.M. in October 1995. The Rocky Mountain & Santa Fe Railroad approached over the horizon from Raton and crossed the Vermejo River here. Warning signals on the highway mark the former Dawson Railway still following the river to Dawson and York Canyon. Photo © William P. Diven (Click to enlarge)

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Trainspotting With The Man Who Runs Amtrak

When I bumped into Amtrak President Joe Boardman outside Albuquerque’s faux-adobe station, his wife scanned the trackside vendor tables stocked with jewelry, souvenirs and burritos.

Amtrak President Joe Boardman in Albuquerque.

Amtrak President Joe Boardman in Albuquerque, Aug. 5, 2016. Photo © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge)

Business is good for those New Mexico entrepreneurs when Trains No. 3 and 4, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, are on time leaving Lamy, the rural stop for Santa Fe, and Gallup in the red-cliffed Indian Country almost to Arizona. With timetables padded to help maintain the schedule, on time at Lamy and Gallup usually means early into Albuquerque in late morning going east and late afternoon chasing the sunset.

That gives passengers from Chicago, Los Angeles and 31 big and small places in between an hour or so to walk around as the trains take on fuel and change crews. At the moment the only customers are a few would-be Amtrak passengers and a handful of people off Boardman’s special train, and he’s wondering where both of his Southwest Chiefs are. They should have been here by now with one of them already long gone.

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Rambling The West Coast By Rail

Railroaders operate by a minutely detailed rulebook with one unwritten rule strictly enforced: Late trains get later.

That describes Amtrak on a 2015 roundtrip from Albuquerque to Oregon by way of Los Angeles. But not in this summer of 2016.

Instead two trains covering 2,201 miles on one-way tickets reached both destinations early with only a little fuss along the way. It’s how America’s private passenger rail system operated into the mid 20th century and still does when everything clicks. No ailing equipment, decrepit track, disruptive passengers, dangerous weather or lame dispatching by a host railroad blew up the schedule with hours-late arrivals and missed connections.

Breakfast on the northbound Starlight in 2015 came with a view of Mount Shasta. Photo © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge.)

Breakfast on the northbound Starlight in 2015 came with a view of Mount Shasta. Photo © William P. Diven. (Click to enlarge)

The worst to be said of travels this July is the Coast Starlight café-lounge ran out of Scots whisky before we reached Los Angeles. That’s what I told Amtrak President Joe Boardman when we met trackside in Albuquerque a few weeks later. I also said I owed him a positive story and now had the material to post one. Continue reading

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Hang on Tight as Your Train Wiggles Through an Autumn Slide Show

Coal smoke, chill air and rampaging color. Can’t beat the high country as your train whistles and chugs above 10,000 feet and through the aspen groves on a splendid fall day.

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Each aspen stand is its own little family with their DNA determining the remaining color as photosynthesis ends and the green drains away until next year. Photo © William P. Diven.

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Singers, Fans Win As Railroad Takes On Rocky Mountains

The show must go on, even if a mountain rockslide stops your train carrying a Grammy and CMA winner and the entire audience.

That’s what happened on Saturday morning nearing 9,000 feet elevation in the Colorado Rockies where the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad curves into a crumbly cut through layered rock and dirt far from the highway and any quick help.

The rockslide. Photo © William P. Diven

The rockslide. Photo © William P. Diven

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Amtrak’s Southwest Chief Ripe For Mutiny

If you’ve been out West for enough years or enjoy Western novels, you know being snakebit may not mean a snake actually sank its fangs into you. Just ask Amtrak, snakebit from the get-go this travel season.

Train No. 4, the Southwest Chief, usually runs close to on time from Los Angeles to Chicago. And Amtrak tries hard to mimic the travel experience from the days when the Santa Fe Railway sped the Super Chief across the desert and plains on blazing schedules at speeds occasionally topping 100 mph.

But that was then, and this is now: Continue reading

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Amtrak’s Last Scotch

When fire turned Albuquerque’s railroad station into smoking rubble on a January night, the blame variously fell to homeless folk lighting a fire to stay warm or trouble in the electrical system of the 91-year-old building. Call it another hard-luck episode in the history of Amtrak in New Mexico.

Albuquerque firefighters hose down the smoldering wreckage of the Amtrak station. January 4, 1993. © William P. Diven

Albuquerque firefighters hose down the smoldering wreckage of the Amtrak station. January 4, 1993. © William P. Diven (Click to enlarge)

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Thank you, Arizona

Normally New Mexico points to Mississippi as the negative example keeping us from being the bottom feeder of all manner of quality-of-life rankings. When a Republican legislator who didn’t get New Mexico’s Latin state motto tried to change it, the derisive reaction included jettisoning “Crescit Eundo” in favor of “Gracias a dios por Mississippi.” That’s all just noise, of course, which doesn’t obviate our beloved and beautiful state being worst in the nation for child well-being after Mississippi moved up to 49th in the Kids Count Data Book last year.

Now, however, it’s time to thank Arizona for reminding us what’s right in New Mexico. Yes, Gov. Jan Brewer yesterday vetoed the bill enshrining as public policy religious discrimination against gays and anyone else, but students of New Mexico history recognize our neighbor’s roots running deep into the 19th century. There, but for the grace of politics and the Spanish language, our two states would look like today’s Republican Party, a single body enjoined in a fight for its soul between panicked moderates and snarling radicals.

To understand this requires a rapid and much simplified recap of local history:

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Amtrak’s Sunset Limited crosses the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, into New Mexico nearly on the Mexican border. Bill Diven photo.

The United States, for myriad reasons — Manifest Destiny, spreading slavery, lust for a rail route to California — invaded Mexico in 1846. Two years later we owned the Southwest, or thought we did. We botched the survey drawing the border too far north for the rail route, but instead of sending the dragoons back in, we bought what is now much of southern New Mexico and Arizona. Continue reading

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Death Race I-25

Interstate 25 during the morning rush to Santa Fe intimidated the woman in the VW enough she couldn’t make up her mind about the 75 mph flow in the right lane. So she opted to speed up, slow down and randomly apply the brakes, slowing and braking just as I started to pass her by shifting into the 85 mph left lane. I barely dodged her and squeezed into the faster stream as a pickup grill quickly filled my rear-view mirror. What surprised me about the pickup driver wasn’t the on-my-bumper tailgating but his inattention when I turned on my blinker. I really expected him to speed up in an attempt to plug the hole in his lane before I could dive into it.

I-25 near Santa Fe. Rail Runner tracks on left.

I-25 near Santa Fe. Rail Runner tracks on left.

By Tuesday morning enough time had passed I’d almost forgotten how much one risks life and limb in the morning stampede from the south into the capital. Last time I checked the numbers a few thousand commuters from Rio Rancho came east across the Rio Grande each morning struggling to get through the town of Bernalillo to reach the interstate and turn left into the northward wave from Albuquerque. At Bernalillo three lanes become two, and Death Race I-25 begins. Continue reading

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