Belen and BNSF: Railroading in the land of enchantment
Located near the heart of New Mexico, Belen is home to one of the largest railyards in the Southwest. It’s a small town, but it boasts an extensive railroad history dating back to the late 1800s.
Belen was founded in 1740 by Spanish colonists Captain Don Diego Torres and Antonio Salazar. Originally, 40 families began their community here in Nuestra Señora de Belen, and the town’s name was later shortened to Belen – the Spanish name for Bethlehem.
This town’s railroad history began in 1880 when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (ATSF or Santa Fe) laid tracks across the state. The once small agricultural village then began its remarkable expansion to become a thriving center of transportation and commerce. With the arrival of settlers, the town quickly saw the emergence of new mercantile shops and service-oriented businesses, many catering to rail workers and passengers alike. Thus, Belen, incorporated in 1918, became a bustling hub.
In 1908, a new route from Chicago to Belen was introduced as the “Belen Cutoff” that served as a bypass for the Santa Fe that passed through Texas rather than Colorado. The route not only created newfound economic prosperity for the Belen community but offeredthe Santa Fe a much safer and fuel-efficient alternative to the steepness of the mountainous Raton Pass. With the introduction of the Belen Cutoff, the town became an essential spot for railway activity, attracting commerce and trade from across the region.
One of the most iconic businesses established in Belen was the Harvey House, a famous hotel and restaurant chain designed by Fred Harvey to revolutionize the travel industry. The Harvey House was a place where railroad passengers could eat and rest while trains stopped on a long journey. The Belen Harvey House operated from 1910 to 1939.
Today, the Harvey House againshowcases its classic original charm following its transformation into a captivating museum. It offers visitors an opportunity to explore exhibits dedicated to the rich history of the railroads while also serving as one of Belen’s most treasured cultural landmarks.
Belen may be deemed a small city, but it plays a significant role in the railroad industry thanks to BNSF’s ongoing modern-day operations here.
General Director of Transportation for the Southwest Division Mike Lee notes Belen is the main hub for BNSF’s fueling and inspections on our Southern Transcon, which connects Los Angeles with Chicago.
“With four fuel pads for eastbound trains and four for westbound trains, we handle an impressive average of 750,000 gallons of diesel a day. Some days, we even hit over 1 million gallons. Belen’s one of the busiest hubs in the BNSF’s network,” Lee said.
The Belen division of BNSF has a bustling dedicated workforce. Currently, there are about 400 Transportation employees in total, who work both in and out of Belen, and 100 Transportation employees who are based right here in the city. Additionally, there is an estimated 225+ employees working in engineering and on the mechanical side. Together, this forms the backbone of BNSF in Belen.
Franco Padilla, one of our terminal managers in Belen, has a profound appreciation for the railroad industry. This respect is no surprise, as he comes from a generational railroad family. With decades of involvement in the industry, Padilla has worked his way to supervising one of the largest and busiest BNSF facilities.
"On a daily basis, we see about 80 to 90 trains passing through Belen. The sheer volume of freight that comes through this hub is astounding. We transport everything imaginable, from merchandise and electronics to fuel, feed, coal, grain and more,” Padilla said.
Belen’s longhistory with the railroadcontinues to flourish. Since its early days and the groundbreaking success of the Belen Cutoff, this cityhas been instrumental in shaping the landscape of rail transportation in the Southwest.
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