New Mexico village rises to challenge of losing Amtrak agent

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It's a blustery fall day as Amtrak's westbound Southwest Chief makes the station stop at Lamy, N.M., the railhead for passengers to and from Santa Fe.
William P. Diven
Harvey the station cat named for Santa Fe Railway icon Fred Harvey tolerates attention from Steven Lucero, one of the volunteers staffing the Lamy, N.M., depot at train times after Amtrak eliminated the full-time agent there.
William P. Diven
LAMY, N.M. — With smaller Amtrak stations around the country losing full-time agents in recent months, the community around Lamy stepped into the breach.

Since early August, volunteers greet arriving and departing passengers with luggage carts, help with the shuttle to Santa Fe, N.M., and offer a clean waiting room stocked with reading material, snacks, and a station cat.

The cat would be Harvey, namesake of legendary Santa Fe Railway restaurateur and hotelier Fred Harvey.

"To us continuing the Southwest Chief is a vital part of the tourist economy," says Karl Ziebarth, board chairman, CEO and general manager of the Santa Fe Southern Railway, which owns station and grounds. "We saw an opportunity to give passengers a better experience than a station that's not open."

To that end, Santa Fe Southern contracted with residents of Lamy and the nearby community of Eldorado which already were holding summer-season events in the station park.

"I can’t tell you how important and helpful the group in Lamy and Eldorado is," Ziebarth continues. "They've been working hard to spruce up the station, and we have also done some work on the outside as well.

"It's a much more attractive venue for people who want to come to northern New Mexico, and we hope there are more of them."

There have been unadvertised services for passengers in tight spots like fetching a pizza for someone stranded with children or getting people to Santa Fe when the shuttle couldn't accommodate them.

The volunteers also stood by into the wee hours of Oct. 5 when the eastbound Southwest Chief, delayed by flooding in western Arizona and its crew then dying on the law more than 60 miles short of its terminal, arrived at 3:58 a.m. — 15 hours late.

"Passengers were sleeping on the floor," recalls Cindy Lou, a Lamy resident who asked that her last name not be published.

At least the floor was clean as is the entire station built by the Santa Fe Railway in 1909 in the Mission Revival style. About half a dozen volunteers work the depot with another dozen helping out with food service for regular warm-season events at the station park, Cindy Lou adds.

Earlier this year Amtrak announced 15 more stations with low passenger counts would lose full-time agents and be replaced by part-time caretakers who would open stations before train times. Ticket sales also would disappear in favor of online reservations, which now account for about 90 percent of sales, according to Amtrak.

Lamy lost its ticket sales as well as handling checked luggage.

Amtrak statistics show 10,786 Southwest Chief passengers getting on or off at Lamy during the federal fiscal year ending Sept. 29, 2017, the latest numbers available. That's about 1,600 fewer passengers than two years earlier.

As Amtrak has done elsewhere, it approached the Santa Fe Southern about being the Lamy caretaker.

"The fact Santa Fe Southern is using neighborhood folks or people who live close by is their hiring decision and one we appreciate," Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari tells Trains. "The level of concern and caring the Santa Fe Southern folks have for that station goes beyond ownership and goes to having a functioning transportation resource there."

Ziebarth notes civic involvement is at the root of the ex-Santa Fe Railway Lamy line. In 1880, residents of Santa Fe funded its construction after learning the railroad would bypass New Mexico's capital city due to the expense and engineering challenges.

The Santa Fe Southern has faced its own challenges since incorporating in 1991 and buying the line from the then Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Freight traffic all but dried up after taking three major hits: The BNSF Railway rerouting Denver-Albuquerque, N.M., traffic via Amarillo, Texas, adding too many days to beer deliveries; the crash of the housing market in 2008 killing movement of building supplies; and the early 2014 bust in oil and gas prices ending pipe shipments destined for the Four Corners region where New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah meet.

Regular passenger runs from Santa Fe to Lamy in venerable coaches, an open car and a caboose ended in 2013. An attempt by an outside operator to revive the service failed to gain traction.

Santa Fe Southern sold all but its tracks at Lamy to the state of New Mexico while retaining operating rights and with volunteer help runs charter trains and appears in commercials and hit TV shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Longmire." Working with the New Mexico Film Council, the short line also has had supporting roles in "Woman Walks Ahead," "Appaloosa," and "Ridiculous 6" among other movie productions.
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