Amtrak return to Clovis gaining traction

By Robin Fornoff

CMI projects editor

The once remote possibility of passenger train service returning to Clovis for the first time in more than 40 years is apparently picking up speed and barreling toward reality.

An Amtrak spokesman’s recent suggestion the railroad might relocate its Southwest Chief passenger train south to Amarillo — with stops in Clovis — has generated new speculation ranging from cautious optimism to outright ecstatic anticipation from west Texas to eastern New Mexico.

“It’s going to happen. I have confidence that it will,” said George Bradley of Lubbock, a longtime self-appointed lobbyist to bring passenger train service back to the Panhandle.

“We’re here and ready,” said Melissa Dailey, executive director of the Downtown Amarillo Inc., where the city recently agreed to spend almost $4 million to buy the historic Santa Fe Depot rail station and plans are in the works for renovation.

State legislator Ann Crook of Clovis isn’t as optimistic.

“I wouldn’t object to it,” Crook said. “But I’m just not sure with all the (freight) traffic that we’ve got on our rail lines now, I don’t know that BNSF would want it.”

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the issue for the Chicago-to-Los Angeles Southwest Chief are deteriorating tracks between Newton, Kan., and Albuquerque. Amtrak has already slowed the Southwest Chief from about 80 mph to 60 mph in the stretch because of track conditions.

The tracks are owned by freight railroad BNSF and must be upgraded to accommodate the higher speed Amtrak passenger train, Magliari said. He also said BNSF doesn’t use the stretch of track between Kansas and Albuquerque for much of anything and has no incentive to come up with the $200 million needed to upgrade tracks.

Amtrak has embarked on a lobbying campaign, asking Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas to chip in $4 million a year for the next 10 years along with Amtrak and BNSF to pay costs of upgrading the track on the current route.

Amtrak’s state government relations chief Ray Lang told Crook and other members of a legislative subcommittee Tuesday that minus cash infusions from the state, Amtrak would be forced to consider changing the Southwest Chief’s route south. Forced, because Magliari said, Amtrak doesn’t want to change routes, yet another costly expenditure.

“We’d rather stay put,” Magliari said, adding no one has crunched the numbers yet on the cost of moving the route south.

The route change would take the passenger train from Wichita, Kan., through Amarillo, then on to Belen, presumably with a stop in Clovis.

Crook said she doesn’t see much if any money in the state budget for any cost sharing proposal to keep the Southwest Chief on its current route.

“I think it is not really viable. There was no wide reception that I saw on the committee,” said Crook, who has a soft spot for trains out of Clovis. In the mid-1950s, Crook said she and her husband Jerry used to frequently ride from Clovis to Kansas City, Mo., where he was attending dental school. It was the least expensive means of travel.

“We were so poor we had to ride the chair car,” said Crook, explaining it was an overnight ride and they had to sleep in the chairs provided with the train ticket, not in a bed or bunk. “You sat in a chair and you slept in a chair.”

But Crook said they made friends with other regulars during the ride, eventually establishing a card club to occupy their time during the long ride.

The last passenger train out of Clovis was in May 1971, when Congress created Amtrak and the new railroad shut down the route.

Magliari said it isn’t a question of whether BNSF wants Amtrak switching routes to Amarillo. The federal legislation creating Amtrak obligates all freight railroads to accept passenger trains, he said. One of the biggest issues, he said, would be logistics, coordinating the passenger train’s schedule with BNSF’s freight now using the tracks.

Clovis now averages about 90 freight trains a day. Spokesman Joe Faust said while BNSF hasn’t received a formal cost-sharing request from Amtrak, the company is aware of Amtrak’s suggestions to all three states.

Magliari said Amtrak’s agreement with BNSF for the Southwest Chief’s current route ends in 2015. Without contributions from the three states, Amtrak would begin the logistical work and other negotiations required to reroute to Amarillo and through Clovis to Belen. Magliari said the switch would be ready to take place in 2016.

In Amarillo, Dailey said her organization and others are preparing for the possibility of a route switch.

“It’s really up to those communities where it’s going through now whether they can raise the funds to pay for the track,” Dailey said. But the prospect of passenger service returning to Amarillo and Clovis, “it would be terrific,” she said.

“It’s completely out of our hands I think. All we can do is prepare for the possibility.”

Among those preparations, Bradley says, are an effort he’s putting together to create an express bus service from Lubbock to an Amtrak station in Amarillo.

“It’s time and it would be great,” said Bradley, a member of the Texas Association of Rail Passengers, a group lobbying Amtrak to create a Caprock Xpress train from Dallas to Denver with stops in Amarillo and Lubbock.

Bradley prefers train travel. It’s cheaper, he said, and more relaxing. He and Dailey said they believe there is plenty of economic incentive for Amtrak to make the switch.

Bradley, who is retired military, frequents Clovis on trips to Cannon Air Force Base. He said on his most recent trip Friday, his car radio began blaring the theme music from the film “Rocky” as he entered Clovis.

“I said to myself, ‘It’s a sign,’” said Bradley. “It’s going to happen. Uh-huh.”

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