Scouts highlight 'Southwest Chief' impact on national network

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A contingent from a Canton, Ohio, scout troop enjoys the Capitol Limited lounge car as the train pauses at Elkhart, Ind. on July 21, 2018. Committee Chairman Dusty Sterling (facing in, near window) organized an excursion to and from Raton, N.M. even though Philmont Scout Ranch cancelled all organized activities because of fires and continuing fire danger.
Bob Johnston

RATON, N.M. — For an illustration of the way the Southwest Chief matters to Amtrak’s national network, look no further than the Boy Scouts of America.

Members of Scout Troop 127 from Canton, Ohio, aboard the eastbound Capitol Limited on July 21, were among the comparatively few 2018 participants who visited the Philmont Scout Ranch and Training Center in New Mexico after early-season wildfires and continued threatening conditions caused cancellation of most camp programs for the entire summer.

“We spent a year planning and saving for this trip,” explains Dusty Sterling, the troop’s committee chairman, “so when Philmont announced that our backcountry trek, was cancelled we went out there on Amtrak anyway but camped in Colorado.” The scouts briefly visited the training center, which remained open to 4,000 National Advanced Youth Leadership Experience participants over the summer, but not the 23,000 scouts who usually rough it in the wilderness on seven-to-12-day backpacking adventure.

Philmont spokesman Dominic Baima tells Trains News Wire that about 9,000 scouts are usually transported every year to and from the Southwest Chief at Raton, N.M., but the 18,000 trips they represent do not include any Leadership Experience participants and 1,100 staff members who make individual car rental arrangements at the station when arriving by train.

Amtrak has floated a plan to replace part of the Chief route with a bus bridge [see "Raton Pass may lose the Southwest Chief," Trains News Wire, June 22, 2018], although when the U.S. Senate passed its 2019 transportation appropriations bill, it  included funding and a mandate to continue the train [see "Senate passes transportation bill including amendment to maintain Southwest Chief," Trains News Wire, Aug. 2, 2018.]

“The treks prior to July 15 had been cancelled on June 4, and we made the difficult but prudent decision to close the remaining treks and individual backcountry programs on July 5. We expect to reopen with a full program next year,” says Baima.

Though Amtrak no longer publicly releases monthly ridership and revenue numbers, cumulative fiscal year totals for the Chief since last October have been sagging in both categories, and will certainly show additional weakness for July and August. In turn, this will impact connecting long distance trains like the Capitol, which normally benefit from scout bookings.

“This is the easiest, safest, and most cost-effective way to get to Philmont,” says Sterling, whose Canton-bound crew detrains at Alliance, Ohio. He notes that airline flight costs to Colorado Springs, Denver, and Albuquerque airports have been increasing and all involve long ground connections compared to Amtrak at Raton.

“Driving straight through might take over 24 hours, and with all our gear we would have to take several vehicles, plus this way we can interact with each other along the way,” Sterling adds. “We’re lucky we’re close enough to an Amtrak route to be able to have the (train travel) experience.”



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