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Rich In Charm But Losing Money, Amtrak's Southwest Chief May Fade Away


Amtrak's Southwest Chief is one of the longest train routes in America, going all the way from LA to Chicago. Despite its nostalgic charm and amazing views, the Southwest Chief has been under threat of closure. NPR's Kirk Siegler says Amtrak loses money on these long-distance routes.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: A couple of years, actually, I've been following this from afar and watching some of the states try to chip in money and matching grants to save the line because there is a lot of concern economically and culturally that this line could go away.

RATH: So Kirk got a ticket and climbed aboard.

SIEGLER: I got on at Albuquerque's Alvarado station. It's pretty bare-bones. It's mostly a bus terminal. And the train was also a couple hours late, which is something that is pretty routine, at least on Amtrak's cross-country routes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For those just boarding here in Albuquerque, we ask that you...

SIEGLER: One of my favorite places was the lounge car. There are sky lights and big windows, and you can see all the scenery. And you're traveling through places that really look like they could be on the set of a Western. You get a different perspective from that lounge car. I met a lot of people who were on that train because they like the slow pace of it. They thought it was a piece of American history that is sort of slipping away because it is.

SHARON MOORE: I've always loved trains since - since I was a kid. I like the rocking and the rhythm.

SIEGLER: Sharon Moore is one of the passengers I met in the lounge car, and she's taking the Southwest Chief across the southwestern United States to, of all places, as she put it, La Junta, Colo. She was going there because her mother had just passed away. And she was traveling around to different places that her mother lived. And in World War II, her mother had worked for a doctor at what was then a military base in La Junta, Colo.

MOORE: She started out with - hard in life, but she did really good. There was things that she wanted to do in life. She set out to do them, and she did them.

SIEGLER: She got a bit choked up when she told the story. But, you know, we were sitting there for long enough, and she just opened up and shared why she was going there.

MOORE: And it's, you know, out in the flat of Colorado. And...

SIEGLER: I met a lot of people like Sharon Moore, who said that this was part of the country's heritage. And they hated the fact that it may be going away, even though they understood that for financial reasons, these types of things may not go on for much longer.

BEVERLY OCHIAI: I would really hate to see this route changed, the line change. The scenery is stunning.

SIEGLER: This woman who overheard me talking to some other passengers chimed in. Her name's Beverly Ochiai (ph). And for her, it was a - it was a time to sort of unplug.

OCHIAI: There's no newspapers. There's no Wi-Fis. Cellphone is very sporadic. Of all the lines, we've really loved the Southwest Chief.

SIEGLER: If there was one common theme with a lot of the passengers I spoke to, it was nostalgia

MOORE: We just enjoy it. I'm looking for elk right now or some horses or...

SIEGLER: I had considered taking the train all the way back to LA, where I live now. But then there were delays and, you know, unplanned and unannounced and unexplained stops in the middle of nowhere. After sitting on the tracks for so long, I got off and flew home (laughter). A good friend of mine who's covered New Mexico politics for a number of years, who described the Southwest Chief to me as this sort of fixture that everyone loves and everyone wants to keep, but yet not that many people actually take in reality.


MERLE HAGGARD: (Singing) But that train keeps rolling down the track, bringing my old memories back. Making hobo blood...

RATH: You can hear more of Kirk's reporting on the Southwest Chief on MORNING EDITION next week.


HAGGARD: (Singing) Reviving my old love affair with trains. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
Beginning in October 2015, Arun Rath assumed a new role as a shared correspondent for NPR and Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH News. He is based in the WGBH newsroom and his time is divided between filing national stories for NPR and local stories for WGBH News.
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