Las Vegas, N.M., Needs Amtrak To Help It Draw More Tourists
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's take a trip, now, to Las Vegas. That would be Las Vegas, N.M. It's like a lot of small towns in the Southwest, put on the map thanks to the railroads. And that would've been more than a hundred years ago. Then, more than 40 trains a day stopped at Las Vegas, N.M. Today there are only two, and those could soon be cut. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on the prospects for an old railway town if the railway goes away.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: I'm riding the Amtrak Southwest Chief as it snakes through the pinion pine and mesquite-covered hills of northern New Mexico. The views are amazing, passing all these ancient little towns with Spanish missions. You miss all this when you whiz by on the interstate. The track is really old, so it's a slow grind down Glorieta Pass. After a few unplanned stops, we finally roll into the Las Vegas station.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What is that?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right, next.
SIEGLER: I'm supposed to meet my local tour guide, but we're a couple hours late, and I'm half expecting he's given up on me. Instead, it seems like the whole town came out.
CINDY COLLINS: Hi.
COLLINS: You finally made it. I'm Cindy.
SIEGLER: The president of the local economic development group, the city manager, a county commissioner, even the mayor.
ALFONSO E. ORTIZ: Welcome to Las Vegas. We're happy that you're here.
SIEGLER: Turns out these people are serious about their town and the Southwest Chief stopping in it.
ORTIZ: My name is Alfonso E. Ortiz, mayor of the city of Las Vegas.
ELMER MARTINEZ: I'm Elmer Martinez. I'm city manager for the city of Las Vegas.
SIEGLER: Ortiz and Martinez usher me into the train station that their town pays to staff and maintain for Amtrak.
MARTINEZ: This is the Las Vegas depot.
SIEGLER: There are old photos framed on the walls, throwback to when Las Vegas was a big place. See, the railroads used to ship seafood east from Los Angeles and beef west from Chicago. And the train stopped here for ice carved out of the mountains above town.
MARTINEZ: This is a real example of a boomtown created by the train coming into a western community.
SIEGLER: But like so many other western boomtowns, there was a bust, and Las Vegas has struggled ever since. Martinez shows me an old illustrated map that portrays this town's cultural divide. On one side is Old Town, the Spanish adobes built around a plaza, then New Town, buildings made of wood brought in by the railroad. It doesn't look too different today.
MARTINEZ: People say, how did you have the vision to save all these historic buildings? You have 900 buildings on the historic register. And it was pretty simple. It wasn't about preserving the architecture. The economy didn't allow those buildings to be torn down.
SIEGLER: Today, Martinez and Mayor Ortiz tell me they want to use this to their advantage. Las Vegas is preserved, and real estate's cheap.
ORTIZ: But we need to market what we have. And we can't afford to do that unless we get more people and the railroad continues.
SIEGLER: But that is an open question right now. That track I rode up here on? Parts of it haven't been upgraded since the 1950s. And there are concerns Amtrak will abandon this part of the line and the train might go away.
ORTIZ: If it were to go away, we would break that railroad link from other communities. We would be deprived of tourism to the degree that we are right now.
SIEGLER: The timing here couldn't be worse because the town's new plan to attract tourists is almost entirely dependent on the train. One idea is that railroad buffs will take the Southwest Chief here and stop for a night or two to check out all the history.
COLLINS: Heritage tourism, this is a destination easy to get to from Chicago or L.A.
SIEGLER: Cindy Collins of the local civic group Main Street de Las Vegas is showing me around downtown. The adobes and the old west buildings are all mashed together. It's a sight. It's easy to see why Las Vegas has been featured in so many films, "Easy Rider," "Red Dawn," "No Country For Old Men." Things are pretty quiet here.
COLLINS: About a year ago, I was doing something to promote our town, and I had to find two people and say, here's a shopping bag. Act like you're shopping.
SIEGLER: There are two ornate old railroad hotels, the Plaza and the Castaneda. They were just bought and are being renovated. The folks here are worried that the developers could pull out if the Southwest Chief goes away.
COLLINS: And we can walk down Bridge Street.
SIEGLER: Collins tells me that when they heard that might happen, Las Vegas sprang into action, lobbying Santa Fe and Washington, D.C. New Mexico's governor recently put up a million dollars toward a multi-state effort to help pay for the track upgrades. Amtrak says it's committed to working with the states to keep the Southwest Chief running, but there's still reason for Las Vegas to worry.
In each of the last 10 years, alone, Amtrak has operated at losses of more than $200 million. Some of that can be blamed on its cross-country routes. Just consider that last year, Amtrak reported 12 million riders in New York compared to just 127,000 in New Mexico, and at the Las Vegas station, only 5,000.
PAUL GESSING: Boston to Washington, D.C., makes a lot of sense for Amtrak. Albuquerque to Raton, New Mexico, not quite as good of a use of taxpayer dollars.
SIEGLER: Down in Albuquerque, I met Paul Gessing. He runs a group called the Rio Grande Foundation, which lobbies for privatization of New Mexico's transportation grid. He says a tourist train is a more practical alternative for a town like Las Vegas. After all, the Amtrak only makes three stops between here and Colorado on a 250-mile route.
GESSING: This is a very spread out state. You've been traveling around the state of New Mexico, and you see the wide open spaces. It's kind of what we're known for. Trains can be nice. I'm not against trains.
SIEGLER: It's just that Gessing says most New Mexicans drive or fly if they're going really far. A friend of mine, who's covered New Mexico politics for years, told me that the Southwest Chief is this fixture that everyone loves but hardly anyone uses. It's clear that there's some nostalgia at play here. Passenger rail has been going away in rural America.
PAT GAELLEGOS: Hey, it's here.
SIEGLER: Pat Gaellegos is one of the regulars. She's retired and doesn't drive. She takes the Southwest Chief almost weekly, back and forth from Albuquerque.
GAELLEGOS: Oh, yes 'cause that's my way I get around.
SIEGLER: There's no Greyhound bus service here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, hello, little lady.
GAELLEGOS: I saw you yesterday.
SIEGLER: So Gaellegos rides this for practical reasons.
GAELLEGOS: It's clean. I like that it's so clean. And it's so convenient. I don't like that they're always late. But yesterday I had planned to go shopping with Auntie Lena, but by the time we - two hours late was too late.
SIEGLER: Both of the trains I took were several hours late. And it takes us four hours to get back to Albuquerque. It's a two-hour drive. There are plenty of open seats, too. Yet, as we approach the city's Alvarado Station, you can see a big crowd out on the platform. And our conductor says, make space.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: 'Cause out of Albuquerque, you will have a new best friend for the rest of your journey.
SIEGLER: The overnight Southwest Chief service to Los Angeles Union Station is sold out. I'm getting off to catch a flight home. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Albuquerque. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.