Amtrak’s Southwest Chief getting another boost from Pueblo County, other communities

The Southwest Chief rolls west toward Trinidad and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Amtrak photo.

When Kevin Patterson was riding his bicycle in Glenwood Springs earlier this week, he stopped by the Amtrak station. He was curious how many riders were on the train, given the restrictions on group gatherings and increasing shelter-in-place orders.

Two passengers, an employee told him.

Patterson, who operates the Glenwood Canyon Resort, relayed the story to Lisa Langer, the city’s director of tourism. She had also just spoken with a man in Utah who wondered what would be open in Glenwood Springs on his upcoming train trip. Langer told him of the governor’s order to close all bars and restaurants except for take-out service.

“I think it would be wise for Amtrak to stop this route for, like, a 30-day period at least,” she said. “It doesn’t seem economically feasible if there are only a handful of people on the train.” Langer did not believe that temporarily halting the California Zephyr, known for its scenic views of the Rocky Mountains, would hurt the local economy.

“Nothing’s open at this time anyway,” she said.

In fiscal year 2019, the Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to the Bay Area, had nearly 411,000 riders, the second most popular long-distance route. The Southwest Chief, which cuts through southeastern Colorado on its way from Chicago to Los Angeles, had 338,000 riders.

Marc Magliari, a spokesperson for Amtrak’s Chicago office said that daily ridership has dropped by 60% due to the coronavirus, which includes state-run service, the Northeast Corridor and long-distance trains. Future bookings have decreased 80% compared with 2019 and cancellations have soared by 400%. (Magliari could not confirm whether there were two passengers on the Zephyr on the day that Patterson inquired.)

Amtrak has canceled or reduced service on nearly two dozen routes. For the handful of small communities in Colorado, many of which see late night or early morning arrivals, there was mixed reaction to the prospect of suspended service for the state’s two trains.

“The city of Lamar expects very minimal impact if Amtrak adjusts the Southwest Chief route,” said city administrator Steve Kil.

“I would hope that Amtrak, similar to other carriers in other forms of transportation, would not make longer range decisions on service during these times,” said Rick Taggart, the mayor of Grand Junction. “We as a community would be very disappointed with this type of short-range decision making.”

Grand Junction is the third-busiest station in Colorado, with an average of 89 boardings or alignments per day. Lamar, by contrast, sees only four people get on or off daily.

The U.S. Travel Association has estimated that 4.6 million people could lose their jobs in the travel industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with fewer than half of those jobs regained by June even if there is a full recovery by then. If Amtrak did suspend service, Langer said, she hopes it is only for a limited time.

“I’m just worried if they stop it, they might not start it again,” she said. “And that would be detrimental to our community because we rely heavily on train traffic during the summer, especially.”

Magliari said that there are no plans to cancel either of the two Colorado routes, and permanently eliminating them was not under consideration to his knowledge.

“Before we would eliminate service across the state, we would first reduce the capacity of the train to try to better manage demand,” he said, referring to shrinking the number of coaches, sleeping cars, baggage cars, and food service cars on the train. “Even then, we’re in constant contact with the U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress on these issues.”

Amtrak has eliminated the Winter Park Express for the remainder of the season, as ski areas have closed by the governor’s order.

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