Forrest Whitman: The West’s iconic trains head for the sunset
May 5, 2017
If you see a train, better get on it. The California Zephyr, the Coast Starlight, the Empire Builder, the Texas Eagle and my favorite, the Southwest Chief, may soon be heading West for one last ride. Back in my railroad days, when a brakeman died, someone would announce at sign-in: "He caught the last westbound."
Of course, it's all about money. The budget President Donald Trump submitted to Congress looks like it was written by the Heritage Foundation, a group that thinks the government has no business "subsidizing" anything, except for the military. Amtrak may cover 94 percent of its budget almost entirely from ticket sales, but still, that's not enough for those purists.
What a loss to the West these iconic trains will be. They are not only part of our Western history, but they also are symbols that somebody still cares about the rural West. Trains say you can still get out of town even when a blizzard is moving in. Trains say to the handicapped person that she can have mobility. Trains say to a senior that he doesn't have to beg for a ride from family or a friend but can get down to the station and make his own way. It's the train that stops downtown that says to a little Western community, "You have value beyond what any Harvard Business School teacher would assign."
It would be tragic to see the brand-new Union Station in Denver bereft of long-distance passenger service after all these years. But that loss also would be true of small towns whose names not everyone recognizes. Places like Raton, New Mexico; Libby, Montana; Lamy, New Mexico; Trinidad, Colorado; Cleburne, Texas; Ephrata, Washington; and Winnemucca, Nevada, are not likely to appear in the Sunday New York Times travel section. Still, they depend on the Chief or the Eagle, the Empire Builder, the Zephyr or the Coast Starlight.
Many people in these small towns voted for the Trump campaign, believing Trump's promise that a trillion dollars would be poured into infrastructure. Now, those trillion dollars have evaporated.
It was money from what was called a "TIGER grant" that helped save the Southwest Chief. All the small towns along its way chipped in hard-earned cash to keep that train going. The grant was matched by funds from three states — Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico — and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. There are no more TIGER grants in the new budget.
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Some of the cuts in the transportation budget seem particularly nonsensical. Elaine Chao, our new secretary of Transportation, is cutting the California high-speed rail initiative. That kills 9,600 good jobs. Maybe California can do the project anyway, but the federal contribution was a part of the plan. What an irony that this is coming from a "job-creating" administration.
The economic arguments for cutting our Western trains make no sense. The budget cutters will spare "money-making" Amtrak trains on the Northeast Corridor. But of the 31 million Amtrak riders last year, 19 million never set foot in the Northeast. Those people rode our Western trains and, in addition, these long-distance trains funnel passengers to the Northeast. The sad fact is that this new budget leaves 144.6 million Americans with no train.
More funding ironies abound. Since 1947, $600 billion has been poured into our highways over and above what the gas tax brings in. ($141 billion has been added since 2008.) When conservative lawmakers fume over "subsidies" to Amtrak, they ignore the gusher of money flowing into highways. Of course, we do need to support all our transportation modes, but to single out trains as "money losers" is silly.
I was standing on the platform in Raton, New Mexico, when a young couple rode up on their bikes. One of them said, "We'll catch that train this summer, for sure." I hope they can. The Chief was rolling in so we didn't have time to chat, but I hope to finish our talk in the observation car this summer.
Losing our trains cuts the heart out of the West. I hope we'll call, write letters and let Congress know what it means to us if our Western trains are forced to catch the last westbound.
Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Salida and rides a lot of trains.