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Southwest Chief Reroute: Toward a Brighter Amtrak Future, Part I

Southwest Chief reroute - Amtrak Chief leaving Chicago, with Willis Tower in background

UPDATE September 9, 2014: A Federal "TIGER" transportation grant has been awarded to preserve the current Southwest Chief route through northern New Mexico, a portion of southern Colorado, and western Kansas.

However, the total of this grant and other contributions does not come close to estimates given to keep the route running over the next 10 years. There are huge delayed maintenance issues in the currrent situation. For safety sake, these have slowed the maximum speed the Chief can operate in some areas to below normal passenger train speeds.

Nevertheless according to Chris Loveless of KRDO in Pueblo CO, "As part of the grant application, Amtrak committed to continuing the existing service for twenty years and BNSF has agreed to maintain the new rail for twenty years."

This original post:

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief has become threatened as never before.

Can you imagine the Chief, one of the most scenic Amtrak trains, suddenly stripped of all of its best scenery? What that would do to its ridership?

Sadly, that is exactly what will happen if Amtrak does not handle the transition well when the train moves to a new routing.

Here, I propose ways to keep one of America’s premier trains sublimely scenic and to make it even more popular.

Image above: This outstanding photo © by Mark Hinsdale shows the Chief departing Chicago Union Station on September 9, 2012.


At any moment, operating conditions through the rugged mountains of northern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado could terminate Amtrak Chief service.

If not immediately, Amtrak will almost certainly have to move the Chief to a southern route between Albuquerque and eastern Kansas when its agreement to use the current line expires in 2015.

This southern route avoids stunning scenery, to put it mildly.

If Amtrak schedules its new routing in the same way as the current one for maximum same-day connections at Chicago, the Chief will become in my opinion the least compelling long-distance train in the western United States.

Until now, the striking southwestern panoramas of Arizona and New Mexico have strongly motivated travelers to take the Chief. That could unfortunately change.

Toward a better Amtrak Southwest Chief

View from Flagstaff, AZ Amtrak station

Above: Flagstaff’s Amtrak station used by the Chief brings you into the heart of its historic downtown, with old Route 66 behind behind the vehicles. Humphreys Peak, the highest mountain in Arizona, rises beyond.

Unlike now, the proposed schedule puts you in Flagstaff during daylight all year. © Flagstaff Convention & Visitors Bureau.

I propose a Southwest Chief schedule with three major goals:

  • Making the Chief experience even better by scheduling more great scenery during daylight, in spite of its reroute.
  • Preserving most same-day connections between the southwestern and eastern United States.
  • Making those connections more dependable than existing ones, in order to increase customer satisfaction.

These objectives are accomplished in three ways:

  • Setting dramatically different departure times, in order to maximize scenery.
  • Combining Amtrak’s Capitol Limited and Chief for same-train service between Los Angeles and Washington, DC, which preserves connections and eliminates the need for some.
  • Motivating passengers to connect at Washington, DC, where many alternatives are available when a train arrives late, instead of at Chicago and Pittsburgh.

Why the Southwest Chief must move

Red bluffs, Amtrak Southwest Chief route, Western New Mexico

Above: I took this photo from the Chief while crossing western New Mexico toward Navajo Country. This train, I was told, was doing 90 mph.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) no longer uses the Amtrak Chief route through northern New Mexico and even claims that it no longer owns it. The railway no longer pays for major maintenance. Neither will a financially strapped State of New Mexico.

Because the Chief uses this line, Amtrak faces deteriorating track conditions that cause delays.

A downright bizarre legal dispute has developed. Essentially, BNSF maintains that the State of Mexico purchased the New Mexico portion of its northern line, while the State insists that it did not and wants $2.675 million of the $4.7 million it paid BNSF back. That the money remains in escrow boosters the argument that the sale was never consummated.

Given Amtrak’s shaky funding situation and the uncertainty over whether BNSF or the State holds responsibility for repairs, a major landslide or washout could end Chief service at any time.

Moreover, as track deteriorates along the current Chief route across much of Kansas and southeastern Colorado, BNSF no longer maintains speeds at passenger train standards. The railroad does not need high speeds for its limited freight operations.

In a few places, speed limits have fallen to as low as 10 mph, with reportedly 40-60 mph operation now over many sections of the line.  Traveling at this rate over long distances is totally unacceptable for long-distance passenger train operations.

As with New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas have indicated that they will not fund the Chief, not surprisingly as it travels through an area of sparse population.

According to Julie Ann Grimm of the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, BNSF estimates that improving and maintaining the northern route to Amtrak standards would cost at least $100 million over 10 years. After that, BNSF wants $10 million per year to keep it that way.

Most likely, spending that amount for just one roundtrip train per day will not happen.

The BNSF extends an invitation

In an attempt to resolve the situation, BNSF invited Amtrak to reroute the Chief via its mainline through Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle and eastern New Mexico. This route already exceeds Amtrak standards.

Even if Amtrak resists moving, I doubt that the agreement permitting Amtrak to use the northern route will be renewed in 2015. By then of course, BNSF may have withdrawn its invitation.

Condensed Southwest Chief schedule

Los Angeles City Hall seen from Amtrak Union Station

Above: As with most passenger trains, the Chief brings you into the heart of cities it serves. Here looking out from Union Station, trees obscure El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, where 44 settlers of African, European, and indigenous descent from Mexico founded Los Angeles in 1781.

This shows the proposed schedule. Its pros and cons follow. For a more complete version with connections, see Part III.

All stops on the new portion of the Chief route are displayed, as well as a selection of stops on the portions that will remain the same.

Read Down ↓   Read Up ↑
1:00p Washington, DC (ET) 1:50p  
  (Appalachian Mountains)  
8:54p Pittsburgh, PA 6:00a
11:54p Cleveland, OH 2:18a
2:17a Toledo, OH (ET) 12:16a
7:30a Chicago, IL (CT) 7:00p
3:30p Kansas City, MO 9:12a
8:15p Wichita 3:47a
9:00p Wellington, KS  2:52a
11:02p Woodward, OK 12:50a
1:46a Amarillo, TX (CT) 10:26p
2:24a Clovis, NM (MT)  7:38p
7:25a Albuquerque (MT 3:07p
  (Navajo Country + Painted Desert)  
11:37a Flagstaff, AZ (MST) 7:26a
  (Kaibab National Forest)  
  (Mojave Desert westbound)  
6:19p Barstow, CA (PT) 12:41a
8:12p San Bernardino  10:44p
9:14p Fullerton (Disneyland) 9:35p
9:49p Loa Angeles, CA 9:00p

Advantages of the proposed Southwest Chief schedule

Harpers Ferry, WV seen from above. Amtrak bridge on right.

Above: Amtrak uses the bridge over the Potomac River on the right to enter Harpers Ferry National Historic Site in West Virginia, where John Brown led the first slave rebellion in the United States.

With the proposed schedule, outstanding Appalachian scenery like this continues much of the way into western Pennsylvania. © steheap -

  • In both directions Chief passengers enjoy superb scenery in the Appalachian Mountains, Arizona, and western New Mexico. Both crossings of the Mississippi River come during daylight throughout the year.

This schedule can be marketed as an essential American experience.

In my opinion, richness of scenery in order to attract riders makes breaking a few connections worthwhile. Keeping the route compelling helps the Chief survive.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr and Coast Starlight trains owe their immense popularity to their scenic routes. Travelers deliberately choose the Starlight over much faster alternatives. For its Zephyr, Amtrak selected a much slower route in order to offer the beauty of the Colorado Rockies.

In contrast, the Chief can retain a very scenic routing without adding to its travel time.

  • By pricing more dependable connections at Washington, DC less expensively than those at Chicago and Pittsburgh, Amtrak increases customer satisfaction.

Compared to other cities, the sheer number of connections available at Washington, in case of a late train, will dramatically reduce delays in reaching cities in the Northeast.

In the future, reduced delays will slash the $10.7 million total Amtrak projected in its 2012 operating budget for “passenger inconvenience.” This includes putting passengers in hotels and feeding them when they miss their trains, as well as flying some to their destinations.

  • Of all the possible routes between the east and west coasts, the proposed Chief one offers the most potential for exceptional on-time performance.

Nearly the entire line from Los Angeles to Washington, DC has been double tracked, far more than any other routing. That means that trains from opposite directions can effortlessly pass each other without waiting. Moreover, a faster train like the Chief can weave around a slower one going the same direction, much as you do when safely passing on a two-lane road.

Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway owned BNSF mainline between Chicago and Los Angeles stays in especially superb condition.

  • Westbound passengers now stay only two nights on the train coast to coast, instead of the current three, with just one night between Chicago and Los Angeles.

This comes as very welcome news for those of us who do not sleep well in coach seats and who cannot or will not budget for a private room, which currently costs at least $460 extra for one person traveling DC to Los Angeles.

Destination-specific advantages include

  • Same-day connections are maintained from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City to Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle in each direction.
  • Oklahoma City (2011 metro-area population 1,252,987) gains a more direct connection to Chicago and the east coast. Wichita, KS (2011 metro population 623,061) gets service. No city on the portion of the route to be discontinued approaches these populations.
  • Santa Fe, NM travelers now have a guaranteed connection to the Chief, instead of having to book transfers locally.

Challenges posed by the new schedule

Rock formation, Southwest Chief route, western New Mexico

Above: This photo of a rock formation on the Chief route near Gallup, NM turned out much better than mine. © New Mexico Tourism Department

  • Although through service between Los Angeles and Washington, DC retains most connections, the proposed Chief schedule breaks some.

For example, travelers from Buffalo, Erie, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis no longer reach Los Angeles four days per week without staying a night in Chicago. 

Most connection problems can be fixed easily by modest changes in connecting schedules.

A few others like Detroit resist convenient fixing.

  • Scheduling for best scenery results in a 9:49 p.m. arrival time into Los Angeles. That may be fine for Los Angeles, but impacts cities beyond.

In the proposed timetable, I set up a guaranteed Amtrak Thruway bus connection from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Guaranteed means that the bus will wait for the Southwest Chief.

I also set up guaranteed nonstop Thruway service from Riverside, CA to San Diego letting those passengers arrive at a far more convenient time.

  • Since the last passenger service in 1971, most cities on the southern route have lost their station buildings and boarding platforms.

Given Amtrak’s financial situation, state and local funding will probably be needed for additional stations on the new route. Until then, I have designated just one stop each in Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and eastern New Mexico.


This Chief schedule breaks some connections, but also 

  • Provides a very appealing scenic experience,
  • Preserves the majority of connections,
  • Makes many connections more dependable,
  • Serves major cities (except Cleveland) during waking hours, and
  • Offers the most dependable transcontinental service ever.

Amtrak should adopt a schedule like this. Timing for scenery and customer satisfaction takes the Southwest Chief into a brighter future.

For more information

For readers who want to dive into the nitty-gritty, I have included three additional sections. This is a serious proposal.

Part II discusses how the Washington political environment impacts an Amtrak route selection.

Part III shows a more extensive proposed timetable, with connections.

Part IV goes into detail about creating the proposed schedule and lists decisions that still need to be made.

Go on to Politics of a Chief reroute (Part II) Blog home page

Your comments are very much appreciated!


Don Small
February 17, 2013

I question the validity of this writer. He is only putting forth his desires from his own personal wants,  He is not taking into account ridership from new gained places.  Doesn’t this writer have the sense to realize that ridership picked up along a route is what makes a route viable.  It is also quite certain that this writer is implying that Amarillo might as well not exist—and for him it doesen’t.  He has never been to the Texas Panhandle.  A lot to see and a lot to do,  Palo Duro Canyon,Alibites Flint quary,  Rodeos, arts, Canadian River.  Amarillo is a destination city.  I do hope before this writer writes another article about any location he will vist it first.

Don Nadeau
February 19, 2013

Hi Don, this is the writer here.

Actually, I’ve been to the Panhandle a number of times and love its friendly people and the quality of its food, some of the best in America.

The situation I addressed is what you see FROM the train. Unfortunately, not that much compared to Arizona and western New Mexico. Although worthwhile, the sights and activities you mention are not very well-known to prospective travelers.

Moreover, although I support a southern reroute especially being there seems to be no viable alternative given the present political climate and condition of the northern route, the southern route increases Southwest competition, not only by adding Amarillo but also by moving the route closer to Oklahoma City. Combined with the need to fund new stations, which might take years to add more than the essential ones, a ridership increase may not develop anytime soon. Remember too that the current route through northern New Mexico and much of Kansas does not face budget airline competition.

I do appreciate your input. Many others have commented on the article in online rail forums, but you’ve allowed the general public to see an opposing view. If Amtrak was to adopt my proposal, I hope that you appreciate that night service in Amarillo is better than no service at all and that a train filled with riders wanting to experience the scenery of the Southwest helps assure that the Southwest Chief will survive.

Robert Amberg
February 22, 2013

Certainly a well thought out plan.  It is most unfortunate that OK city is not served as it is a large population center and part of a growing population area that Amtrak needs to serve.  Of some of the other proposals I’ve seen it comes closest to the logistical issues that will, in part, drive Amtrak’s reroute dilemma - and reroute they will have to do.

This is a route that should be vigorously marketed, particularly in Europe.  And it wouldn’t hurt for the route to be renamed to indicate that it truly is transcontinental.  I, for one, would certainly travel on the revised routing.

The biggest problem I see from a patrons standpoint is that the real Amtrak customers are members of Congress.  Political compromises are not the best way to make business decisions.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be Joe Boardman and have to bite my tongue every time I’m called to the hill.  I can imagine the outcry on dropping stops between KC and Wichita, KS

I wonder tho, if you have presented this to the Amtrak advisory committee?

Don Nadeau
April 27, 2013

@ Robert Amberg

Sorry for the late reply! Thank you very much for your comments. I very much appreciate them.

As you know, New Mexico recently rejected funding to keep the current route through northern New Mexico. Because Burlington Northern Santa Fe sees no use for it, the line will almost certainly be abandoned and scraped.

I very much appreciate that you obviously read all or nearly all of the post. Almost all-negative comments in railroad forums came from those who did not read the assumptions behind the proposals or even the detailed schedule.

There is considerable legitimate concern that Amtrak will not be able to operate the train routinely close to the scheduled time, which would destroy the viability of the proposed schedule. Nevertheless, if any Amtrak long-distance route can maintain time, this is it. After all, BNSF and Norfolk Southern preserve their very time sensitive trans-continental UPS business by staying on time.

It’s unfortunate that the Rock Island line west of Oklahoma City no longer exists. That would make it easy to incorporate Oklahoma City. As for now, we face the challenge of the Heartland Flyer 1) maintaining a Texas connections in Ft. Worth, having intermediate times that preserve local traffic, and making convenient new connections at Wellington or Wichita the Southwest Chief. That’s a tall order, but Oklahoma has supported passenger rail and deserves the chance to use this type of service.

I totally agree that the service should be marketed vigorously in Europe. My fear is that if Amtrak makes the reroute schedule with the same timings at LA and Chicago much group and other overseas business will be without question lost.

jacqueline smee
May 25, 2013

I am a frequent traveler between Albuquerque and Ohio/eastern Pennsylvania and am complimenting you on your well-thought schedule proposal.  Spending just one night on board is a grand alternative to the two nights currently demanded of the traveler. Not to mention the many hours waiting at the Pittsburgh stop and at Union Station which is also required.  Support and investment in a public transit system is critical to the future of this country.  One need not be of a particular political persuasion to appreciate its benefits and value to our culture.  And why do cultural values seem always to be measured in the level of financial profitability produced by the result of the endeavor? 

Let’s wake up , America.  Smell the flowers and enjoy the scenery.  RIDE THE TRAIN!  You will love the experience!

Don Nadeau
June 8, 2013

Thank you so much,Jacqueline.

Strangely some argue that the federal government has no rightful role in passenger rail, yet the framers of the Constitution were clearly concerned about providing infrastructure that promoted unity in the country by enhancing the ability of Americans and their goods to move from state to state. The Constitution specifically ordered that the federal government provide “post roads.” To me, it’s hard to argue that FAA air traffic control and Amtrak are not doing what the framers had in mind.

However, I am not saying that these types of services cannot be provided in a better way outside of federal control. Just look at some of the state sponsored rail services in places like California and Washington State.

Thank you again.


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