Pueblo, once Colorado’s leading industrial city, was also a major national railroad hub. By 1890, traffic had increased so much that the Pueblo Union Depot was built, serving five major railroads. In 1892, the depot handled 18,615 passenger trains and sold 103,114 tickets. Business steadily grew, so much so that, according to the depot’s website, “by 1917 the depot had a restaurant utilizing 33 waitresses, its own bakery, and served more than 160,000 passengers.”
The magnificent depot building still stands beside Pueblo’s extensive rail yards, now used by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, but the last passengers debarked decades ago. Jim and Joe Koncilja, prominent Pueblo businessmen, now own the depot. Its main hall is largely unchanged, and could easily be repurposed to serve passengers.
Will train service return to Pueblo? That may be in the cards. The Konciljas and other business and political leaders are all aboard with the prospect of adding a Pueblo stop to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which connects Chicago to Los Angeles.
Anticipating new service, the Pueblo County Commission included funding for the Southwest Chief in a measure they unanimously referred to the November ballot on Sept. 7.
“They’ve already said that they’re coming,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace. “We’ve designated $7 million for the Chief, including $5 million for track repair between La Junta and Pueblo and $2 million for work at the [Pueblo Union] Depot.”
A long history
The Southwest Chief’s predecessor, the Super Chief, was a fast and famous train operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad until 1971, when Amtrak took over passenger rail service. Offering daily service between Los Angeles and Chicago, the Super Chief is a vital transportation cog for the small cities and towns it serves along its route and a leisurely and unique experience for unhurried travelers.
The train’s route through Colorado includes stops in Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad. That route faced abandonment for the past several years, when Amtrak said it would be forced to bypass Colorado unless major repairs were made to segments of the track. Colorado elected leaders, including Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet, cobbled together approximately $50 million in state and federal funding to avoid re-routing the train.
Pace chairs the Southwest Chief Commission (its full name, in all its bureaucratic splendor: The Southwest Chief Rail Line Economic Development, Rural Tourism, and Infrastructure Repair and Maintenance Commission). In that capacity, Pace has stressed the importance of the Chief to the economy and transportation infrastructure of southeastern Colorado and vigorously supported efforts to retain it.
Next stop, Pueblo
It was clear to Pace and Pueblo Chamber President Rod Slyhoff that adding a Pueblo stop would have a substantial positive economic impact on the city. A study by Colorado State University-Pueblo estimated that its economic impact would be about $3.4 million and that it would attract 15,500 annual passengers.
“It’d have an impact on Colorado Springs as well,” said Slyhoff. “And once Amtrak is in Pueblo, Colorado Springs would be the next logical extension. We’ve all dreamed that someday we could have passenger rail along the Front Range and this might be a first step. I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime, but maybe now.”
Amtrak has yet to make a definite decision, but Slyhoff believes that Pueblo’s bid will succeed.
“When Amtrak makes their formal announcement we need to have funding in place,” he said. “We’ll use it to equip the depot to receive passengers, and we need to do some track work on the La Junta-Pueblo line. We hope and expect that the voters will approve, but you never know. The ballot is so loaded with other stuff that voters may not take the time to understand it — but I sure hope that they do.”
And what happens if the voters fail to approve the measure? Where will the $7 million come from?
“We’ll worry about crossing that bridge when we get there,” said Pace.