Grant means Amtrak will keep its stop near Philmont

High-Adventure-Week-2015---PhilmontAs many as 5,000 Scouts travel to Philmont each summer by train, making the trek to Philmont almost as exciting as the trek at Philmont.

So you can imagine the dismay in the Scouting family last year when word came out that Amtrak might be forced to shift its route away from the BSA’s New Mexico high-adventure base.

I reported at the time that if Amtrak and government leaders weren’t able to resolve their dispute, the route of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief would be moved. Instead of a stop in Raton, N.M., less than an hour from Philmont, the train would get no closer than Albuquerque, N.M., more than three hours away. That would make traveling by rail to Philmont impractical for many crews.

Now the good news. 

This week — just in time for High-Adventure Week (Coincidence? Probably.) — news broke that the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded a $15.2 million grant to improve Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route.

In other words, Amtrak will continue service to Raton for years to come, meaning thousands more Scouts each year will experience a thrilling train adventure before their thrilling Philmont adventure.

Amtrak-to-PhilmontThe train’s importance to Philmont

For decades, Scouts from Chicago to Los Angeles and beyond have taken Amtrak to get to Philmont. They travel through the rugged American West before disembarking in Raton, where they’re just an hourlong bus ride from Philmont’s gates.

Philmont’s John Clark told Yahoo last 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.”

Communities all along the Southwest Chief route rely on the train’s presence for their livelihood. In Raton, for example, Scouts account for half the business at the station, according to the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle.

The route of the Southwest Chief

Heinrich-at-Philmont-Scout-RanchA senator’s visit

Last year, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (the junior senator from New Mexico) and Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman rode the Southwest Chief to discuss the route’s past and how to preserve its future.

One of their stops was at Philmont Scout Ranch, where Heinrich (pictured here) met with BSA leaders and a troop from Iowa that rode Amtrak to Philmont.

Heinrich told the Chronicle what this route means to his fellow New Mexicans and others across the country.

“The Southwest Chief isn’t just a railroad route in New Mexico, it serves as an economic engine that connects communities from Gallup to Raton to the rest of the nation,” he told the newspaper. “These critical capital improvements will ensure that Boy Scouts from across the country can experience the Philmont Ranch and will help communities like Las Vegas and Lamy stay connected to major cities and tourism dollars.”

A historic gem

Scouts arrive at Philmont by a plane, train and automobile today. In 1941, though, the train was king.

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


Thanks to Philmont’s Bryan Hayek for the story tip. Top photo via this blog. Secondary photo via Sen. Heinrich.


  1. Sorry, but in my opinion it’s time for Amtrak to go the way of the dodo. This is a commercial enterprise that loses money every year, so our tax dollars keep them afloat.

    This past summer my children wanted to go from Orlando Florida where I live, to visit my dad where he was working a summer job up in Maryland. We looked at the cost of taking the train from Orlando to Maryland, just outside Washington DC was over $700 and 12 hours. To fly from Orlando International Airport, to Dulles was $630, roundtrip for 2 people.

    I used to work in customer service for a major travel agency. Every time I compared traveling by plane and traveling by Amtrak, the plane was always the same price or cheaper. It was always faster.

    For the same reason that buses replaced stagecoaches, it’s time for Amtrak to be replaced.

    • Tom,
      Please tell us which airport Delta or Southwest ever constructed.

      What highways did Ford, GM or Chrysler build?

      Aviation and highways get BILLIONS of dollars every year in tax subsidies while tiny Amtrak gets crumbs.

      You force the highly-subsidized air and highway travel systems to “pay their own way,” then you’ll have a valid argument about Amtrak, which, btw, isn’t a “private enterprise” any more than any U.S. commercial airport is “privately funded.”

  2. Except that for travel to Philmont, airplanes are not a replacement. You have to factor in not just the transportation to Albuquerque, you have to factor in the transportation from Albuquerque to Philmont. Add the two together and my guess is that’s it’s more expensive than the train.

    As far as government subsidies for Amtrak – other forms of travel are subsidized as well. Who pays for the roads that truck and buses use? How much public money goes into airports?

    • I agree with your last comment about public money and airports. Perhaps Amtrak — passenger rail travel — wouldn’t be in such straits if federal spending for trains had been on the same footing as commercial aviation and the Interstate highway system.
      For troops that don’t have deep pockets but who live near a passenger train station, Amtrak is the way to go to Philmont. I’ve done it from Kalamazoo and Jackson, Michigan, and enjoyed it both times. Besides being cheaper than flying, it’s easier on the adults, who don’t have to drive, and it’s fun for kids. Scouts can roam the train, buy snacks, look at the scenery, watch movies, read, play with their phones, play cards, or just plain relax.

    • We did factor it in. Charlotte NC is the largest MSA south of DC and east of ATL. But, Amtrak couldnt get us to and from Philmont without an additional WEEK of travel and for 3x the price of Southwest Airlines (including shuttle costs).

      If the crew’s location happens to be within a short distance of a stop on the Southwest Chief route (LA to Chicago), it is probably a viable option. For the rest of the country, not so much.

      There is no direct route from the southeastern US to the southwestern US via Amtrak and that really puts the kibosh on the whole thing for them.

      • Alex your route should have been Charlotte to Richmond then Thruway bus to Charlottesville to Chicago to Raton. I have look at the route from Columbia SC a few times and I agree there needs to be a route to st Louis or Dallas from the South East but the historical passenger demand for said route hasn’t been there.

        • The Amtrak scheduler was showing Charlotte to DC to Chicago to Raton, about 30+ hours of travel and layover time. Considering the total time necessary, it simply made the trip unfeasible for the adults who had to take time off from work.

  3. David Baldacci wrote a good book called the Christmas Train. The story is set on the Southwest Chief as it is stuck in a blizzard in Raton Pass.

  4. If you actually do the math, its cheaper and faster to drive from Florida to Philmont than it us to take the train if 2 or more are going.

    Any for profit business that needs federal tax dollars to stay afloat should be allowed to shut down.

    The Gov’t investing in roads and airports has increased tax revenue. Amtrack needs Gov’t subsidies to pay it’s bills.

    If Henry Ford invented the automobile today, the US Gov’t Would be giving tax money to stagecoach companies and buggy whip makers do they wouldn’t go out of business.

    Let the free market decide. I guarantee someone will come up with a better business model than Amtrack, one which could turn a profit.

    • I think with the rise of E-Z passes and other direct-charge systems of interstates, we might soon have a level comparison.
      We will soon have to increase taxes to underwrite necessary bridge and other maintenance on most interstate systems. We haven’t been paying what was expected of them to fund scheduled repairs (some due to contracts given to lowest bidders, but even the best road needs routine attention). If we’re not careful, our highways will be looking a lot like AmTrack.

      On the bright side, this is great fodder for some of those Citizenship in the Nation discussion.

      • Most of the tolls today are centered on high traffic metropolitan commuter routes, not long interstate routes and arent really much of a factor…..yet. It’s going to be a long time before the amortized cost for a crew of Scouts in a van make road travel unfeasible.

        However, you are correct that because tax revenue has been diverted (and raised at the same time), earlier mandated expenses have simply been ignored.

    • You realize that ‘free markets’ would create very limited rail service only where there is a need so basically in the Northeast. All the other areas would be without a alternative transportation service such as rail since it is too expensive to do much. So in this case, a crew going to Philmont would be forced to drive from most areas. Since that too adds too much time or require hiring a bus, crews would be economically forced to not go. Free market favors non-innovation where deep pockets are needed such as long range transportation.

  5. Oh my goo’ness. Train travel is so much better than airplane for the same destination. If you fly coach, knees in your chest (or in the next seat forward’s back!), yep, you get there quicker, but oh the difference .
    Train lets you stretch out, walk around, even in coach/economy class. Food (real food!) is available. If you have a family, book a roomette , a private room, couch, bed, food included, all that one would need to include in your travel plans anyway. Hotel? dining? How much sight seeing can you do out a A310 window at 12,000 feet? Noise?
    And has anyone on this thread traveled in Europe lately? Train is fast, comfortable and reliable.
    Driving? Fatigue, grumpiness, 12 hours a day in a car? Come on, we pay for a pro to drive or fly or engineer us there.
    And talk about government support? Economic loss? Which is a better government support recipient? USAir or AMTRAK? Do the math. The trains are almost always fully booked, at least everytime our family has booked a trip. The track is there and will remain there. Freight pays for the track maintenance. All you need is creative scheduling for the passenger lines.
    Ecologically speaking, which is the more fuel efficient? Do you really think a turbo jet at 12,000 feet is better than the new diesel engines being phased in?

    Steve: As for the Thurmond station In WVA, it is still there, lovely little historic station stop but the roads will not allow an over-the-road coach, just too small a bridge. Pick up truck, 10 passenger van, maybe, but not a ‘Hound. Summit will have to be Bus Accessible for the forseeable future. Mores the pity, our international friends in 2019 will be disappointed , the lack of viable intercity train and bus transportation….

    • It can be a far more luxurious way to travel, that is true. But, for adults who are taking time off work to chaperone the trip, that extra travel time has a very real cost in terms of lost earnings and/or vacation time. When you add the exponentially higher cost of the train fare itself, it is anything but the most efficient way to travel.

      Because of the size of the US and the relative lack of heavily populated cities in the interior of the West, Amtrak simply cant find the demand for passenger service that western europe can.

      • Luxury not withstanding, it is more relaxing and efficient for point to point travel. If you are traveling with family/Troop and want to visit along the way, yes, car/bus is more appropriate, but all the more fatiguing . See “The Old Iron Road” by David Bain.
        And, as has been said, that “exponentially higher cost ” is a factor, but you are getting a restful, intriguing ride, food and accommodation (no need to seek a motel for the night), no need to wear out the family car (see the above book), and strain your own eyes (or those of the “relief” driver).

        Europe is no different from the US. The need for interurban travel is a subject of much debate. The availability of the possibility often encourages the market. Make it available, easy to access , and understand convenient schedules, and you will have folks using it. I was in Spain two years back, and I was surprised how well used the intercity/town bus system and train systems were and how easily even a dumb tourista such as myself could utilize it.

        We had a vacation and rode the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago last January. The train was almost at capacity most of the time, people got off and on at every town along the way. Beautiful, empty country, but folks going on business, to visit family, to vacation along the way. An Amish group on it’s way back home in Nebraska(!). My son could not have had the conversation he had with the Amish furniture maker if not for our long night time rail travel.

        Government subsidy? Our taxes already subsidize many more questionable items and activities that benefit our people far less than easy convenient travel would and enrich only certain of our population at the loss to others. Employment, safe , convenient transportation, enjoyable travel options, I can define many less valuable and desirable opportunities for subsidization.

        Good Scouting to you, friend Alex!

  6. For many Scouts in the Midwest, the train ride out to Philmont is absolutely part of the experience! I’ve done it twice and my son did it last summer with his troop. When he returned from his trek, he had just as many stories about the Scouts he met on the train as he did about his adventure at Philmont!

  7. With a little promotion and coordination, AMTRAK might consider running some “specials” for Philmont. I was privileged to go to the Rosebowl with the Purdue Marching Band in 1966-67. We had an entire Special Santa Fe Super Chief to ourselves, for real. I think we had close to 400 band, support, alumnae and various hangers-on, baggage car, dining car ,sleepers (for the old folks, us band kids slept in the coach seats), and a triple unit engine. Detour to see the Grand Canyon, what a tour….

  8. I’m surprised there isn’t a ‘Philmont Scout Song’ written about the “SOUTHWEST CHIEF” It was part of the adventure going to Philmont! I really enjoyed seeing our beautiful country, and the dining car half filled with Scouts and Scouters in full uniform enjoying dinner, served with real knives and forks, white table clothes, flowers on the table, and you can order from a menu…… going home after their long trek, it must of seemed like they went to Heaven.LOL

  9. Amtrak is a small part of our giant transportation system. Take Amtrak away and all those people make traveling on the roads in the cars and buses, etc. just a little more crowded.
    We need all of our various transportation methods.

  10. This blog is old but I just found it. I traveled to Philmont with a parent going out to Raton; thence by bus solo on down to Philmont for Conservation Training Camp / National JLT Training back in 1964. My father worked for Missouri Pacific at the time and somehow we got low cost fares or passes. Doing the math; that was 53 years ago. Then returned to central Missouri alone, also by bus & rail . I’ll never forget all three stages of that adventure. but they went very well. I still use the Missouri River Runner Amtrak route in Missouri on occasion, but agree U.S. rail service is not what it once was. Unfortunate.

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