A Rail Photographer’s Guide
In March of 2020, I drove 4,500 miles throughout the Western United States in search of ultimate freedom and a good photograph. The eleven day journey took me through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada before returning home to Northern California. The trip had no defined parameters, no hotel reservations, nowhere I had to be. Instead, I just loaded up my truck and took off, allowing the trains and light to guide my way.
This photographer’s guide is for those who are interested in photographing, documenting or learning about the Santa Fe Railroad’s classic semaphore signals. My goal is to provide you with the information I wish I had before my adventure.
In the desert mountains of Northeastern New Mexico, time seems to stand still. Old jointed rail accompanied by historic code lines and the classic semaphore signals make you feel as if you stepped back 100 years in time. This route was once the heart of the mighty Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Built shortly after the Civil War, the Santa Fe Railroad played a major role in western expansion.
With stops in Trinidad, Raton, Las Vegas, Glorieta and Lamy (Santa Fe), the railroad loosely followed the original Santa Fe Trail. The Santa Fe Trail was used by pioneers and traders as a connection between the United States and Mexico. The route was dangerous, requiring travel through inhospitable deserts where rattlesnakes and hostile Apache tribes reigned supreme.
For nearly 30 years, this route was the primary connection between the United States and the New Mexico Territory. In the early 1900s, the Santa Fe built the “Belen Cutoff”. This new route allowed trains to bypass the significant 2%+ grade of Glorieta Pass and the 3.5% grade of Raton Pass. Train traffic slowly dwindled until the mid 2000s when the BNSF Railway seized all freight operations along the Raton Pass Route. Below is a map of the Raton Pass Route (“Before”) and the Belen Cutoff.
Today, the Raton and Glorieta Subdivisions only see two trains per day. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief travels along this route, shuttling passengers between Chicago and Los Angeles. Both the westbound and eastbound Chief are scheduled to travel this particular section during the daylight hours. Passengers onboard the Chief get a front row seat to the scenic American Southwest.
While traveling thousands of miles for only two Amtrak trains may seem crazy, you have to remember that the lack of train traffic could be the only reason the semaphores have survived into 2020. Since the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) and congressional legislation requiring the modernization of railroad signals, classic semaphore and searchlight signals have been under constant threat. Railroads across the country have been replacing signals at a steady pace.
The Raton Pass Route is not immune to signal replacement but it does seem as if the replacement projects have been delayed. As of today, New Mexico is home to the last remaining semaphore signals along a mainline route in the United States. As I type this, BNSF crews are actively working on replacing the semaphore signals between Colmor and Levy. Eventually, the semaphores will be replaced and banished to the history books. I urge you to get your shots now before it is too late.
Between Trinidad, Colorado and Albuquerque, New Mexico photographers have over 200 miles of unique railroad scenes to capture. The route consists of several unique sections including Raton Pass, the great plains, the high desert, Glorieta Pass and Galisteo Basin.
The Raton Subdivision
The first major obstacle for the westbound Chief (train #3) is Raton Pass. Climbing out of Trinidad, Colorado, the train follows Interstate 25 and Raton Creek. This particular trackage allows photographers to capture scenic mountain railroading along with Santa Fe searchlight signal bridges. The train reaches the 7,500′ summit of Raton Pass shortly after crossing into New Mexico. Raton Pass was known as the “highest point on the Santa Fe Railroad”.
After crossing Raton Pass and making a quick station stop in the Town of Raton (population 6,000), the Chief continues west (geographically south) into the Great Plains of Northeastern New Mexico. The scenery is dominated by wide open grasslands as far as the eye can see. While not scenic in the traditional sense, this section still has a lot to offer. Just less than 50 miles west of Raton, the Southwest Chief passes the first set of semaphore signals. Located near the town of Springer, the semaphores at mile post 706 mark the eastern boundary of “semaphore country”.
I have created a google map which shows the location of all the semaphore signals along this route.
Continuing west, the Southwest Chief will pass semaphores at Colmor, Levy and Wagon Mound. Between Wagon Mound and Watrous, the railroad splits with Interstate 25 and follows the Mora River. While the semaphores along this section have been replaced, there are still many scenic views to be captured. Shortly after Watrous, the train arrives into Las Vegas, New Mexico for another quick station stop.
Chasing the Southwest Chief up until this point is nearly impossible. While drivers can make good time along Interstate 25, the Chief travels at 79mph for much of the section between Raton and Las Vegas. In order to get setup and in position, I suggest that you only attempt one photograph.
In the mountain sections between Trinidad and Raton as well as between Las Vegas and Lamy, you can photograph several locations comfortably. I would highly suggest being prepared with locations in mind as it can be difficult to “make it up on the fly”.
The Glorieta Subdivision
After leaving Las Vegas, the scenery quickly transitions from the Great Plains to the High Desert. Surrounded by colorful mesas and desert mountains, the Southwest Chief navigates the relatively remote section between Ojita and Chapelle, New Mexico. Scenic views accompanied by classic semaphore signals makes this an ideal section for photographers.
Continuing west, the Southwest Chief begins to ascend Glorieta Pass. It is here where the westbound Chief will typically meet its eastbound counterpart (if both trains are on time). The meet will usually happen at Fox or Glorieta based on the dispatcher’s discretion.
Glorieta Pass is likened a rollercoaster for railroaders. With steep grades and sharp curves, the train slowly naviagates the treacherous terrain. The colorful red dirt along with many pristine US&S searchlight signals makes this an ideal section for photographers as well. Once over Glorieta Pass, the train will continue west through Canyoncito, the incredible Apache Canyon and into Lamy. At Lamy (a town of 200 residents), the Chief will make another quick station stop. Lamy is the connection point for Santa Fe.
After Lamy, the Chief will race into the Galisteo Basin. Track speeds begin to pick up again as the train rolls along trackage owned by the State of New Mexico. Here, the Chief will encounter the last five semaphores along its journey to Los Angeles. These semaphores are unique as they are all single mast intermediates. Once past the semaphore at mile post 850 (western edge of semaphore country), the Chief will fly off into the distance en route to its next station stop at Albuquerque.
Radio Communications & Scheduling
Use the following frequencies to monitor railroad radio communications.
Trinidad to Lamy… 160.59000
Lamy to Albuquerque… 160.41000
The Southwest Chief Schedule can be found on Amtrak.com. Amtrak also provides a real time map tracker, which can be useful to monitor the train as it travels between station stops. Visit the following link for more information: https://www.amtrak.com/track-your-train.html
With the threat of replacement on the horizon, the time is now to the capture the last remaining semaphores in America. I hope this guide will help you plan your trip to New Mexico. Good luck on your adventures and be sure to share your images when you get back.
Do you have any further questions or a suggestion for a future guide? As always, feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly through this website.