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Amtrak train service to Philmont in jeopardy

More than 5,000 Scouts will take Amtrak to and from Philmont this summer.

But unless a financial dispute between Amtrak and government leaders gets resolved soon, that convenient and historic transportation option could fade into history.

Scouts traveling to Philmont by train ride Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which runs daily between between Chicago and Los Angeles, cutting right through the rugged and fascinating American West.

They get off in Raton, N.M., and hop a bus for an hourlong ride to Philmont’s gates.

Amtrak has asked government leaders in Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico to each pitch in $40 million over 20 years for track upgrades and maintenance. The states want Amtrak to foot the bill, which may force the train operator to end its service in Western Kansas, Southeastern Colorado and Northeastern New Mexico.

If the reroute occurs, the train would come no closer to Philmont than Albuquerque, N.M., more than three hours by bus from Philmont.

This isn’t just a convenient way for Scouts to get to and from the best hiking destination in America. This is a way of life for small towns like Raton along the route of the Southwest Chief.

From The New York Times:

“We need this train here,” said Jim Maldonado, chairman of the board of commissioners for Colfax County, where the train stops in Raton (population: 6,700), bringing thousands of Boy Scouts each year for retreats before dropping over the Raton Pass and into Colorado.

“Losing it would be devastating for our county,” Mr. Maldonado said. “Things have just been dying out here for years.”

John Clark, director of high adventure at Philmont Scout Ranch, told Yahoo earlier this year how much Amtrak means to Scouting.

“Kids have been riding the train to Philmont for 75 years,” he said. “Part of that is an economic factor, yes, but it is also about the boys learning about America. Very few of these kids, about 13 or 14 years old, have ever been on a train, and they are fascinated by it.”

Amtrak-to-Philmont-route

The route of the Southwest Chief.

A historic gem

Scouts take Amtrak to Philmont by the thousands today, but in 1941, the train was the top means of transportation to the high-adventure base.

Check out this page from a brochure in which Philmont — then called the Philturn Rockymountain Scoutcamp — outlined transportation options.

Philturn_map_1941

Amtrak on the rise

Philmont risks losing Amtrak at a time when Amtrak ridership is setting records.

From the Department of Transportation: “Amtrak’s ridership is growing faster than any major travel mode. A recent Brookings Institution report noted that the growth in Amtrak ridership is growing significantly faster than ridership growth in domestic aviation.”

What can you do?

If your troop has taken or is planning to take Amtrak to Philmont in the future, you might consider sharing your story with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

You can contact Amtrak on their Contact Us page.

20 Comments on Amtrak train service to Philmont in jeopardy

  1. Tim Gaffron (TimGinMN) // July 8, 2014 at 12:40 pm // Reply

    It will be sad if this service disappears. Our crews have driven from Minneapolis to Kansas City to catch the train to Philmont a few times, and losing it would mean added expense and the loss of a unique experience that many of today’s youth will not get. Flying to Denver and busing to Philmont works, but…

  2. If Amtrak ridership is growing rapidly, Amtrak has tons of money, right?

    Trains are cool, but if the people who use them can’t pay for them, well, why should everybody else have to pay for them?

    • Planes are cool, but if the people who use them can’t pay for them…. (airports, runways, TSA agents, and airport personnel….)

      You get my drift. Your airline ticket would cost MUCH more without public subsidies and infrastructure. Make a better argument.

      • See my more detailed analysis under a later comment. Airplanes don’t seem to be anywhere as subsidized as Amtrak, especially on Amtrak’s long-haul routes.

        Oh, and… I’d rather get rid of the subsidies on airlines too, so that people can understand how much things cost.

  3. We haven’t taken the train to Philmont but this is the second year in a row that our Scouts have taken Amtrak to summer camp. It is a good way to travel if your destination is near their routes – pretty inexpensive and a great way to see the country! Hopefully a compromise can be reached to prevent the re-route.

  4. Amtrak is like the Post Office. Everybody wants to have all the service, but don’t want to pay for it. Both of them need to figure out a way to be self-sufficient but no one seems willing to make the tough decisions.

  5. Gary Wilson // July 8, 2014 at 1:26 pm // Reply

    One needs to look at the numbers when making investment decisions and not make them just on sentiment.

    Apparently it will now take an additional $40,000,000 of taxpayer’s money (either from the states involved or the federal taxpayers who subsidize Amtrak) to keep the service working for 20 years. It’s currently helping 5,000 Scouts a year (100,000 over 20 years) to get to Philmont.

    Ignoring the other riders, who obviously aren’t enough to make it a profitable Amtrak run like the Northeast Corridor, that works out to a $400 taxpayer subsidy per Scout attending Philmont, beyond the fares they are already paying, and the other taxpayer subsidies Amtrak already receives.

    Not sure if that is the most efficient use of the money when compared to other non-taxpayer subsidised transportation methods or if fits in with the concept of “A Scout is Thrifty and pays his own way”

    • While I generally agree, do note that it’s not just Philmont that’s affected. Presumably there are numerous passengers using other affected destinations, so the per-passenger subsidy is lower than you calculate.

    • Please list those other “non-taxpayer subsidized transportation methods” — bet you can’t. Airlines? The airports are built and maintained with taxpayer money and the air traffic control system (and all air regulations) are maintained by the federal government, including the weather reports that help pilots plan a flight. Intercity buses? They drive on the interstate and state highways that are built and maintained with taxpayer money. Same goes for driving your private vehicle, you pay a fuel tax every time you put gas in the tank.

      Perhaps if Amtrak were allowed to be run like a business instead of being micromanaged by Congress, it would be a little better off financially (same goes for the USPS, which is saddled with paying to fund worker retirement up to 75 years from now, even though those employees haven’t even been hired yet).

      Not everyone has good or easy access to an airport (nor the money) to be able to fly wherever and whenever they want. In many places, Amtrak is about the only alternative for long-distance travel (not every wants to or has the ability to drive across the country). Why deny them easy travel just so some folks can spend more money at Starbucks?

      • Gary Wilson // July 9, 2014 at 8:58 am // Reply

        If it were being run like a business, it would be abandoning those little used tracks (one train a day according to the article ) and investing in just the mainline as they proposed.

        • Gary, Amtrak cannot abandon the railroad through Raton for one simple reason: it doesn’t own the railroad through Raton. The BNSF railroad, which DOES own the railroad through Raton, still uses it for some freight traffic (with potential for more depending on coal mining in Colorado).

          Amtrak runs two trains daily over this trackage (as has been true since 1971, when the Santa Fe Railroad joined Amtrak and was allowed to drop the several passenger trains per day they were operating.)

          The issue here is that in response to declining traffic on this route (BNSF has recently greatly enhanced their southern route through Abo Canyon and rerouted all through freight) – BNSF would like to reduce the level of track maintenance through Raton to save substantial costs.

          Most of the requested subsidies are to keep the track and signals up to standards needed for Amtrak.

        • Gary Wilson // July 9, 2014 at 1:55 pm //

          The end result is the same. BNSF won’t maintain the tracks in such a manner that Amtrak can run its two trains a day on this little used track without some group of taxpayers contributing $40 Million bucks to do so.

          And there is a higher volume track (that just doesn’t go through Raton) that can serve Amtrak cross country without that added expense.

          Look, I live three miles away from the Amtrak owned Northeast Corridor. There, about a fully loaded passenger train passes by every ten minutes between Washington, Philly, and New York.

          Rail makes sense there as the passenger volume and revenues support it per mile of track. Conversely, there isn’t train service to my own favorite Scout camp because the passenger volumes don’t.

          It’s an economic decision about the most efficient allocation of resources.

      • In a sample of three airports – LAX, ONT, and VNY, which operate under the LAWA blanket – taxpayer subsidies appear to be $18M for 2013 and $62M for 2012, $0.26 and $0.93 per passenger, respectively. Profit appears to be between $200M and $300M, so it appears that those subsidies are not truly needed. (Expenses appear to include the entire physical plant, including runways, but presumably do not include ATC and TSA. It may be that some years have substantially more subsidy.)
        http://www.lawa.org/uploadedFiles/LAWA/pdf/LAWA_CAFR_FY_2013.pdf

        FAA budget is $16B and TSA’s is $7B. Annual total passenger count is around 800M, so the subsidy there is around $29/passenger. (Less if you factor in cargo somehow.) Note that this analysis does not include income from taxes applied directly to aviation, which appear to reduce the subsidy substantially.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FAA
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transportation_Security_Administration
        http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/press_releases/bts016_13

        Road costs are harder to calculate, because they are spread across numerous organizations and the income is less direct. CalDOT’s budget is $14B. Total gasoline taxes for CA are around $5B.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Department_of_Transportation
        http://www.boe.ca.gov/pdf/pub306.pdf

        Amtrak lost $1.2B in 2012 over 31.2M passengers, for a subsidy of $38 per passenger. The picture is not nearly so rosy for the long-haul routes; the Southwest Chief loses $259 on each passenger.
        http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/103/360/Amtrak-Annual-Report-2012.pdf
        http://www.brookings.edu/research/interactives/2013/AmtrakRoutes

        Net: Amtrak’s subsidies, especially on its long-haul routes, appear to be significantly higher than aviation subsidies. I can’t really compare them with road subsidies, because the road picture is so murky and the usage models are so different.

  6. Andy Kowalczyk // July 8, 2014 at 2:32 pm // Reply

    For those that say that if rail users can’t pay the bill, then let the service die. Remember that both highways and air traffic control system are both heavily subsidized by the taxpayer.

  7. Our railroads are a public service that, yes, is subsidized by folks that may or may not use them. So is the Mariposa Grove. So is the Mississippi (enough p’s?) Channelization . So are the FAA Air Controllers. I pay taxes so other peoples’ kids can go to school. If the train ticket doesn’t pay for the proportional share of the train’s cost, so what? Name me one public accomodation thing in America (other than McDonalds, and even they have hidden “subsidies”. Another time…) that “pays it’s own way”, totally.
    Every time I have “Taken the Train”, it has been full, well used. I have seen commuter lines and the Super Chief and the Montrealer, all full. The train staff has been ever polite, attentive, knowledgeable and helpful.
    When I visited Spain last summer (buen Camino, anyone?), I was gratified by how easy the public bus and train service was to use. Clean, on time, easy to understand timetables, just don’t ride on sundays! The busdrivers were computer connected to the ticketing service. The train stations were staffed and well maintained. And even to my unfamiliar eyes, Euros to dollars, the price seemed very reasonable. The trains and busses were well used, even PACKED on occasion.
    You better believe the tracks in Europe are gov’ment subsidized. And unionized.
    No reason to expect anything less here.
    I see no reason why the Feds and the local States AND counties (my local MD county rebuilt the train stations to accommodate bus transfers) shouldn’t be asked to share the cost to modernize (read about the Boeing fuselages derailing?) and upgrade the tracks and signaling. Go for it.

    When the Summit in Westbygod Virginia comes up for the NatJam and the WorldJam, the closest Amtrak station ( maybe 20 miles,Thurmond) is in need of modernization. No big bus can come CLOSE to it, due to the capacity of the roads and bridge (only one) coming into town (town! Ha!). Next nearest station is a more than 75 miles away by teeny roads. I might suggest building a RRoad to the metropolis of Hopewell, and then we have something!
    Everyone coming to the WorldJam will be doing so by bus or van…..

  8. There is a greater issue when comparing the Interstate Highway System and the Air Travel System, the amount of our tax money spent on them are hundreds of times more than what Amtrak needs for these upgrades system-wide. Train travel on the tax payer, even with the needed money for upgrade is cheaper than just air travel. With all the money airlines are making, government money should be cut back and go to fixing the rails. Rail travel uses the least amount of fuels per mile or person than cars and planes. For these and other facts, checkout: http://www.narprail.org/

  9. I’ll start with disclaimers — I’m not speaking in an official capacity, and I do not represent the Illinois Department of Transportation or any other policymaking organization.

    That said, I DO work for IDOT and I AM responsible for the Financial Software that moves Federal and State transportation dollars around.

    A significant part of the reason that Amtrak requires subsidies is that the law is set up so that it will. Amtrak is designed to be a low cost means of transportation, with prices having no actual relationship to costs. Just as a quick sample, airfare from the state capitol of Springfield to Chicago on short notice comes in at $210, Greyhound is $120. And Amtrak is $42. One of these methods loses money . . . but as has been noted, all are subsidized.

    For comparison, the cost requested for 20 years of subsidy for the Southwest Chief is $40 million, and the cost of the new Mississippi River bridge at St. Louis that was completed last February was $700 million. (In fact, the state of New Mexico will spend more money inspecting and painting bridges than would be spent on the Amtrak subsidy.)

    The most recent numbers I’ve seen from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), show a cost of about 6 to 8 million dollars a mile to rebuild a four-lane rural interstate — so a better comparison would be Amtrak for 20 years or 66 miles of Interstate reconstructed.

  10. I have never rode AmTrack but I would love to one day. But, this is sad that it is a livelyhood for Scouts to get to Philmont. I hope that a resolution comes soon and AmTrack will continue their destination to help young men get to where they need so they can help these young men with life skills they need that Scouting has to offer. Let’s be a voice and speak up!

  11. I rode that train from Chicago to Raton to go skiing in Taos. It was a glorious trip. It’s not just Philmont, by any means.

  12. Connie Knie // July 20, 2014 at 2:16 pm // Reply

    I would hate to see the train go away for the simple reason that it is an alternative for so many Scouts and from what I have heard a beautiful trip. I am headed out there for the second time in 2015 with three crews but we can’t even consider the train. It is much more expensive than flying and then renting cars from Denver!!

    I am coming from Detroit.

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