TOPEKA — Western Kansas may lose easy access to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief passenger train because of deteriorating tracks and the state’s refusal to spend tens of millions of dollars to improve them.
A new route for the Chief could include a stop in Wichita, though any decision would be years away.
Amtrak officials told the state earlier this year that the Southwest Chief – which runs daily from Chicago to Los Angeles with stops in Newton and elsewhere in Kansas – will likely be rerouted south after its stop in Newton if the state doesn’t pitch in millions.
Kansas transportation officials, along with their counterparts in Colorado and New Mexico, now say they can’t afford to spend $100 million in capital improvements and millions more in annual maintenance money to keep the route open.
If the state doesn’t commit the money or find an alternative by late 2014, Amtrak plans to begin rerouting the Chief, potentially with a stop in Wichita, at the start of 2016. That would move the route away from such towns as Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City.
State officials have contacted congressional representatives to see what other solutions might be available to keep the current route. But, at least in Kansas, no ideas have emerged yet, said Dennis Slimmer, KDOT’s chief of transportation.
“It’s an important service to the state,” Slimmer said. “If it would go away, it’d be a big loss to citizens in western Kansas. It provides an important link for them both east and west.”
Amtrak asked the states to help fund track improvements because railroad giant BNSF now runs fewer trains on those western Kansas tracks and it maintains them only to a level that is efficient for the amount of traffic they generate.
Some segments won’t be maintained well enough for the Chief to keep up speed to maintain its current schedules, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.
“Staying on the current route with longer schedules and decreased speed is just not tenable,” he said.
But he added, “It’s our intention to do all we can to stay on the current route.”
Amtrak’s Chief remains a popular route, with 354,912 riders during the 2011 fiscal year. That’s a 3.7 percent increase from 2010. Nearly 48,000 people got on and off the Chief in Kansas in 2011, a nearly 9 percent bump up from the year before.
Hope for Union Station?
Slimmer said the new route probably would add a stop in Wichita, but the Chief would no longer stop in Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City.
Amtrak officials showed KDOT leaders a map of the potential reroute during a meeting last spring in Garden City. It showed the potential reroute would go through Wichita and Mulvane before heading west, with its next major stop in Amarillo, in the Texas panhandle, before connecting to Albuquerque.
Wichita currently has no Amtrak service.
City officials and a grassroots coalition have been advocating the creation of a Northern Flyer line that would run from Wichita to Oklahoma City, connecting it to the existing Heartland Flyer that runs from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth. But after years of study, that proposal has been tabled because Kansas and Oklahoma lawmakers haven’t committed the estimated $136 million needed to improve tracks and add infrastructure for the route.
The proposed rerouting of the Southwest Chief wouldn’t connect to Oklahoma City, but it could provide more convenient train access for Wichita passengers who want to head east or west.
Wichita City Council member Pete Meitzner, who has taken a lead role in rail service discussions, said the city supports the Southwest Chief and wants Amtrak to continue to run on the existing route through western Kansas.
But if Amtrak reroutes the train south after Newton, Meitzner said the city should make sure it stops in Wichita, most likely at Union Station in downtown Wichita.
The station at 701 E. Douglas is owned by Cox Communications and has been up for sale for about five years. City officials and downtown development advocates have hoped it would be revitalized and reopened.
Meitzner said the city would likely need only some easement for train boarding and a small office and lobby for Amtrak ticket sales to accommodate train service.
Amtrak has already used the tracks that cut through Wichita when fires or other conditions in western Kansas make it impossible for passenger trains to take their normal routes, Meitzner said.
“I’m not sure we would have major track improvement issues,” he said.
Meitzner said that he has had several meetings with business leaders and that many support the service because it provides a transportation option, particularly for regional trips, where employees can be productive while en route because of wireless technology that can’t be used while driving or flying.
“That’s a game changer,” he said.
But extension of the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Wichita and locations farther north has proven to be a complicated and expensive venture.
The Northern Flyer Organization, which has advocated extension of the service, says on its website that the proposed route is “highly unlikely, at least for the next 10 to 20 years,” for political and bureaucratic reasons.
Meitzner said Wichita needs to be ready to accommodate service because more young people are putting off car purchases and looking for alternative ways to travel; businesses increasingly want productive hours while workers are traveling; and the state’s aging population shows interest in rail service.
“This really is about the whole state, not just Wichita or Garden City. It’s a state issue,” he said. “Wichita is the largest city in the state and it’s responsible for us to take part of it and even take a leadership role.”