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Amtrak Expansion in New Mexico — What Could Happen, and Why Would We Care?

As part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that was passed in 2021, the Federal Railroad Administration is presently considering expanding Amtrak’s long-distance passenger network. While neat, BikeABQ is a bicycle and safe streets advocacy organization, so why would we care about this?

Certainly it’s easier to bring a bike on a train than on a car or plane (at least where Amtrak provides bicycle service), but that’s not all. It turns out that many of the reasons we care so much about making bicycling more accessible to all also apply to trains. Trains are cheaper and better for the environment than most other long-distance forms of transportation. They also support dense city development, which has co-benefits for bicyclists. Finally, trains get people out of cars, which themselves are the number one danger to bicyclists and pedestrians (and, frankly, other drivers). It’s worth noting also the subjective reason: trains are super comfortable, and the ability to chat, play games, or nap while traveling to other cities can’t be beat.

New Mexico currently has a fairly robust tradition of passenger rail, which shouldn’t be surprising given our capital city. Like most of the western U.S., most of our cities were built for rail, and our harsh arid climate has prevented them from sprawling endlessly away from their tracks. Today, New Mexicans make strong use of our rail infrastructure:

  • Our Rail Runner has ridership comparable to rail systems in much more populous regions—more than San Jose’s Altamont Corridor and about as much as Austin’s Capital MetroRail

  • Amtrak’s Southwest Chief travels through much of the northern part of the state on its journey between Los Angeles and Chicago.

    • The segment between Gallup and Albuquerque sees the most ridership of any internal segment on the Southwest Chief, is the 10th most used segment of all station pairs in the Amtrak system that only see long-distance service, and is the 5th most used segment in the Amtrak system involving a small community.

    • Philmont Ranch outside Raton is heavily accessed by Boy Scouts via Amtrak

Amtrak train in Las Vegas
The Southwest Chief arriving in Las Vegas, New Mexico, one of three passenger services within the state (the others being Amtrak’s Sunset Limited and the state’s Rail Runner Express)

With that out of the way, what could be coming to New Mexico?

Over the summer, the FRA released a Conceptual Enhanced Network, a list of potential segments that could be strung together to form new routes. It’s worth noting that these long distance routes legally have to be at least 750 miles long—if you’ve ever wondered why Amtrak doesn’t run trains between more cities, that rule is probably the reason why! However, long distance routes are a great way to provide service between many pairs of cities at once.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s conceptual enhanced network. The current stage of the long-distance study is examining the best ways to connect the green segments into new long-distance Amtrak routes.

So, how can Albuquerque help fill out Amtrak’s long distance network?

The first long-distance route to consider is Phoenix-Flagstaff-Albuquerque (Belén)-Amarillo-Fort Worth, with possible extensions to Tucson or Houston.

In pink, a proposed long-distance route between Phoenix and Fort Worth via Belén and Amarillo. Track constraints prevent this route from going through Albuquerque proper.

This route would duplicate the Southwest Chief between Flagstaff and Trinidad, which deserves increased rail service:

  • This segment contains several universities: NAU, UNM in both Albuquerque and Gallup, CNM, and the numerous universities in Amarillo and Fort Worth. University connections are important not just for students, but also for facilitating connections between industry and academia.

  • Flagstaff currently has poor eastbound service from the Southwest Chief, with a departure at 4:20 or 5:20 in the morning (depending on daylight savings time). While the travel time between Albuquerque and Flagstaff is very competitive with driving, the poor schedule hinders its utility.

Connecting Phoenix to Flagstaff provides year-round benefits—enabling Phoenicians to escape the heat in the summer and providing an alternate transportation route in the winter—as well as enabling easier access to the Grand Canyon if a stop at Williams can be arranged. Upgrading the subsegment from Phoenix to Wickenburg to handle passenger service furthermore has the potential to facilitate a separate suburban rail transit system in Phoenix, which is severely lacking in efficient transportation options.

The Grand Canyon Railway provides a daily rail connection between Williams and the Grand Canyon. The currently-existing tracks from Phoenix travel through Williams just before joining the main BNSF line that hosts the Southwest Chief, which would allow for a convenient connection.

Continuing east, there is likely a significant amount of business travel between Amarillo and Albuquerque, due to the presence of large Department of Energy sites in the two cities (and additionally in Los Alamos). Furthermore, much of this travel is likely done by car due to the lack of direct flights, which gives Amtrak the potential for a strong competitive edge.

The connection between the Southwest Chief and the Sunset Limited on the west end and additional connection to the Texas Eagle and Heartland Flyer further enhances Amtrak’s existing network, providing additional options and greater access to the long distance network.

Unfortunately track geometry likely forces this route to go through Belen, rather than heading up to Albuquerque proper. Thankfully, the Rail Runner should be able to make the connection into the city as seamless as possible.

The second long-distance route is El Paso-Las Cruces-Albuquerque-Denver-Cheyenne, with a possible extension to Billings.

The route is El Paso - ABQ - Trinidad - Denver - Cheyenne
In light blue, a proposed long-distance route between El Paso and Cheyenne via Albuquerque and Denver.

Connecting Albuquerque to Las Cruces via Socorro, and north through Las Vegas connects several major state universities: UNM, NMTech, NMSU, and NMHU being the most prominent, which (again) is important for student travel as well as university-industry partnerships in the state. Similarly to the situation in Phoenix, upgrading the Albuquerque - Las Cruces segment to support passenger services would likely result in Rail Runner expansion southward as well, potentially providing efficient and economical access to smaller communities like Hatch and attractions like Bosque del Apache.

This route also connects three of the four east-west long-distance Amtrak routes in the American West: the Sunset Limited in El Paso, the Southwest Chief in Albuquerque, and the California Zephyr in Denver.

Moreover, within New Mexico and Colorado this route would connect several of the states’ largest cities, including nearly all with a population greater than 100k. Train service along the Front Range of Colorado is already known to be valuable, so much so that Colorado is looking into building high-speed service in the region. Standard or higher speed trains provide valuable supplemental service to high speed facilities, as both services fill mutually beneficial niches.

Las Vegas, New Mexico, home of New Mexico Highlands University, already has the rail infrastructure that would allow it to capitalize on increased service. New Mexico’s small towns are well suited for train service; their compact size means most of their population and attractions are not too far from the train station.

Returning to an Albuquerque perspective, establishing these two routes by connecting them through Albuquerque connects five of the largest cities in the southwest and expands travel choices on the Southwest Chief section. In addition to these being large cities, they also have productive airports, which would improve the mobility options for those living in the smaller communities throughout the region. Finally, much of this region is subject to severe weather and wildfires which can provoke evacuations, close highways, and otherwise isolate communities. Albuquerque experienced such a misfortune this past winter, where winter weather closed I-40 East near Gallup, a jackknifed truck closed I-25 North, and Southwest Airlines—which comprises nearly half of all flights from ABQ—had canceled the large portion of its flights. Establishing rail service improves the resilience of these communities to such incidents.

If you want to see routes like these enacted, the Federal Railroad Administration is still taking public comment to guide their recommendations. Let them know what you want here:

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