The Cascade Range of southern Oregon is not bashful about rejecting the railroad carved into its flanks as it dares men, women and machinery to conduct business as usual. Looking out from Amtrak’s southbound Coast Starlight in August 2019, the right-of-way reveals fallen trees sawn to logs and shunted aside, boulders kicked away, shiny new utility boxes and dented old ones, and freshly scraped two-tracks squirming into the forest. Propane tanks lazing here and there await the remote call to ignite railside jets when sodden snow fouls connections between the main line and passing tracks.
If Mother Nature feels petulant, she turns these mountains into a formidable adversary. Most days the railroad — once Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific – negotiates for at least a draw and minimal drama beyond the effort needed by cab crews, distant dispatchers and maintenance teams to keep freight trains and Amtrak moving. On other days one of the 20 or so tunnels may collapse as halted traffic for weeks in 2018. Snow falling as white glue last year downed timber isolating the Coast Starlight and refusing to release nearly 200 passengers and crew for a day and a half. Travelers described their experience a nightmare, hell and surreal while also relating kindness toward each other and heroes among the Amtrak service staff.
To say this high forest inland from the coastal mountains is unforgiving is a truism given the limit on mistakes can be zero. There is a friendly side as well although complicated by human imprints farther down the line.
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 of 1932.
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.
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.
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.
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 →
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.
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.
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.
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 billenshrining 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:
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 →