Amtrak Southwest Chief 300-Mile, 3-State Rail Project Final Grant Awarded

Description: The Amtrak Southwest Chief project includes plans for an eventual connection to future passenger rail service along the entire Colorado Front Range connecting Southeast Colorado with statewide economic opportunities. (Photo Credit: Daniel Chaparro)

Published: 12/03/2021
Byline: Hart

SECO Podcast 12-4-21 Amtrak South West Chief Grant Announcement

Amtrak Southwest Chief Grant Announcement

Amtrak Southwest Chief 300-Mile Rail Project Final Grant Awarded

Amtrak in Southwest Chief in La Junta CO photo credit Daniel Chaparro(Photo Credit: Daniel Chaparro)

Project Description

The Southwest Chief La Junta Route Restoration Program is the final component of the project to rehabilitate the track infrastructure of the BNSF Railway La Junta Subdivision. The westbound and eastbound Amtrak Southwest Chief travel over the 409 miles of the La Junta subdivision between Ellinor, KS and Las Animas Junction, CO daily. The total rehabilitation project replaces 146.3 miles of bolted rail with new continuous welded rail (CWR) and reconditions 169.3 miles of existing CWR for a total of 315.6 miles. The overall rehabilitation area is between Hutchinson, KS (MP 218) and Las Animas, CO (MP 534).

The RAISE project replaces the last remaining 29 miles of bolted rail with new CWR and surfaces 4.8 miles of embedded CWR to rehabilitate the final 33.8 miles of right-of-way. The project area is in two locations, one in Colorado just beyond the Colorado/Kansas state line and the other west of Dodge City near the town of Cimarron, KS. The project also replaces twenty grade crossings with modem panelized crossings and installs fifteen new turnouts. The entire section is then surfaced to FRA Class 4 condition at 80 MPH passenger speeds. As part of the project commitment, BNSF agrees to maintain the refurbished CWR at the Class 4 condition for twenty years. 

The La Junta Subdivision has been the recipient of three separate TIGER grant awards starting in 2014. The TIGER 6, 7 and 9 projects have completed 144.8 miles with the most recent occurring in the fourth quarter of 2020. Upon completion of the RAISE project, a critical rail transportation asset connecting the north-south track lines of the mountain states with Midwestern arteries will be established and preserved. This corridor will continue to serve the nation by connecting the region to the larger transportation network.

Amtrak Southwest Chief in La Junta Colorado By Daniel Chaparro SECO News (Photo Credit: Daniel Chaparro)

The United States can be proud of the La Junta story. It is a story which demonstrates how Federal investment creates positive outcomes. Using the resources of the Federal government, USDOT, in financial and political partnership with other public and private entities will have rebuilt a robust and modern railroad mainline across the heartland of America. This will occur on a right-of-way that was once on the brink of irrelevancy. The project finishes a years-long undertaking which generates a return greater than the sum of the individual projects. This mainline supports a passenger train which provides invaluable transportation services to a rural region and connects it to the population centers of Kansas City, MO and Albuquerque, NM as well as the national rail passenger network.

This mainline gives one of America's premier Class One railroads a viable and centrally-located option for detouring trains when natural calamities occur. A major wind farm logistics supplier chose to locate a significant transload facility on the line due to its ideal central location and proximity to a robust and reliable railroad mainline. This could not have happened, nor would have happened, without USDOT's investment. With the investment, USDOT has leveraged private funds and an almost-rabid bi-partisan public good will to create an infrastructure asset less costly to maintain, suitable for a legacy passenger train, and ready to provide efficient transportation options to address the challenges of the future.

Amtrak Southwest Chief in La Junta Colorado By Daniel Chaparro SECO News (Photo Credit: Daniel Chaparro)


The purpose of the Southwest Chief Thru-Car Alternatives Analysis Project is to identify the necessary operational and infrastructure requirements to provide passenger rail service along the BNSF Pueblo and Union Pacific (UP) Colorado Springs Subdivisions (the "corridor1") between La Junta and Pueblo and Colorado Springs, by connecting to the Amtrak Southwest Chief service (Amtrak Trains 3 and 4) at the La Junta station, with an eventual connection to future passenger rail service along the entire Colorado Front Range.


Five overall needs have been identified for the Southwest Chief Thru-Car Alternatives Analysis Project. Two are seen as primary needs and three are seen as secondary needs:


Need to provide transit service to additional travel markets along the southern Colorado Front Range to enhance regional and intercity connectivity. Amtrak's Southwest Chief route operates daily service between Chicago and Los Angeles. While overall ridership on the route has declined in recent years from about 355,000 total passengers in 2012 to about 331,000 in 2018, boardings have increased at the La Junta station from approximately 6,500 in 2012 to about 7,300 in 2018. The increase in boardings in La Junta (as well as a similar increase in Trinidad) demonstrates that demand exists from residents in southern Colorado to travel via Amtrak. Connecting Pueblo and Colorado Springs to Amtrak's national passenger rail network will help meet travel demand for long-distance travelers in southern Colorado as well as passengers from other cities along the Southwest Chief route to Pueblo and Colorado Springs.

Need to provide additional safe, reliable, and efficient travel choices in the southern Colorado Front Range (along 1-25 and US 50), particularly with projected changes in population and employment. Relying only on existing roadways creates risk and uncertainty due to increasing congestion, periodic road closures, natural disasters, and weather events. Providing an additional, reliable travel alternative to existing roadways would support resident access to jobs, shopping, recreation, and health care facilities.

The Colorado State Demography Office projects that El Paso County (Colorado Springs) and Pueblo County (Pueblo) will grow in population in 2020 from about: 731,000 and 168,000 residents today to 950,000 and 197,000, respectively, by 2040. Employment is also projected to grow from 381 000 and 72,000 jobs in 2020, to 483,000 and 86,000 jobs, respectively, by 2040. Meanwhile, Otero County (La Junta) is projected to lose population from about 18,000 in 2020 to 16,000 in 2040 and employment from 7,900 jobs in 2020 to 7,300 in 2040. The nearest major medical facilities for smaller rural communities such as La Junta are in Pueblo and Colorado Springs. These medical facilities and hospitals include Parkview Hospital (Pueblo), UCHealth Memorial Hospitals (Central and North), the St. Francis Medical Center, and Children's Hospital (Colorado Springs).

Amtrak Southwest Chief in La Junta Colorado By Daniel Chaparro SECO News (Photo Credit: Daniel Chaparro)


Need to support tourism and economic development goals of local jurisdictions through attracting out of state visitors and transit station development and/or enhancement: Sitting at the base of Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs is home to some of the state's most popular tourist destinations including Garden of the Gods, the Broadmoor Hotel, the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, and the U.S. Air Force Academy. Pueblo is home to the Pueblo Riverwalk, the Union Avenue Historic Commercial District, many outdoor recreational opportunities, and the Colorado State Fair. Tourism in the Pikes Peak region brought 23 million visitors to the area in 2018 (10 million of which were overnight visitors, spending 3.2 nights on average and generating $1 .7 billion for the local economy).

Approximately one-quarter of the existing Southwest Chief riders at the three existing Colorado stations (La Junta, Lamar, and Trinidad) are out-of-state leisure visitors. Providing a fixed connection to the tourist attractions of Pueblo and Colorado Springs for these travelers and others with similar trip purposes could boost ridership and revenues for Amtrak as well as tourist dollars for these local communities. Bringing rail passengers to Pueblo and Colorado Springs will add tourist dollars and encourage more development around stations as the state and Amtrak look at future passenger rail opportunities along the Front Range.

Amtrak Southwest Chief in La Junta Colorado By Daniel Chaparro SECO News (Photo Credit: Daniel Chaparro)

Need to Advance a longer-term passenger rail vision throughout Colorado: The Amtrak Vision for Improving Transportation Across America, part of its Amtrak Connects US initiative released in May 2021, shows that the company hopes to introduce passenger rail service along the Front Range between Pueblo and Fort Collins and potentially to Cheyenne, Wyoming. With potential increases in service frequency and ridership throughout a well-connected statewide rail system, the state could make progress in reaching its goal of significant greenhouse reductions. The Connects Us initiative also helps the state advance its legislative charge to deliver passenger rail along the Front Range with the passage of SB21 -238 to create the Front Range Passenger Rail District (to plan, design, finance, construct, operate, and maintain a passenger rail system along the Front Range).

Amtrak Southwest Chief in La Junta Colorado By Daniel Chaparro SECO News (Photo Credit: Daniel Chaparro)

In addition, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is coordinating with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) on a Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) Grant to develop a service development plan for potential future Front Range Passenger Rail as a next step in corridor development.

Need to provide safety improvements and modifications to the rail corridor for the introduction of passenger rail services between La Junta, Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Currently, positive train control (PTC) does not exist along the La Junta to Pueblo segment. Also, several existing at-grade railroad crossings between La Junta and Colorado Springs do not meet the standards necessary for implementing passenger rail. Substandard signaling also exists along portions of the corridor throughout the study area.

Additionally, addressing these deficiencies would also provide safety benefits to the existing freight rail service as well. Finally, freight rail capacity and flexibility will need to be maintained while also introducing passenger rail service in this corridor.

1 The "corridor" refers to the Southwest Chief Thru-Car Alternatives Analysis study area that extends from the existing Southwest Chief Station in La Junta to Pueblo generally following US 50 and then to Colorado Springs along 1-25.

Amtrak Southwest Chief in La Junta Colorado By Daniel Chaparro SECO News (Photo Credit: Daniel Chaparro)

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