When, and if passenger trains stop in Wichita again, they may not be owned or operated by Amtrak, which left the largest city in Kansas more than three decades ago.
Extending an existing train from Oklahoma City to Wichita, or even keeping it on its current route, may depend on the success of a state-supported train in Indiana that’s staked its future on a company that isn’t Amtrak.
Iowa Pacific, a Chicago-based owner and operator of railroad locomotives and cars, was one of seven companies to express interest in running the Heartland Flyer train, which currently offers one daily round trip between Fort Worth, Texas, and Oklahoma City.
I think that the train will come. It may not be in the next couple of years, but I don’t think the sentiment is going away. The general mood is that it’s in Wichita’s future. Deborah Fischer-Stout, passenger rail advocate
For more than a year, Iowa Pacific has operated the Hoosier State route, which runs four days a week between Indianapolis and Chicago. Although Amtrak personnel staff the train, Iowa Pacific furnishes the equipment and gives passengers amenities they couldn’t get before.
Passengers can ride in a vintage glass-domed car to see the countryside, there’s on-board Wi-Fi and a dining car serves hot meals on a white tablecloth, a nod to the days when passenger trains had a reputation for their cuisine and their customer service.
Ridership is up, and so is revenue.
“We’re putting fresh food on plates,” said Ed Ellis, Iowa Pacific’s president. “It’s amazing how important that is in attracting riders.”
We’re putting fresh food on plates. It’s amazing how important that is in attracting riders. Ed Ellis, president, Iowa Pacific
Oklahoma, facing a state budget crunch much like its neighbor to the north, is looking at ways to save on the annual cost of supporting the operation of the Heartland Flyer.
Plans to extend the train to Wichita and Newton, Kansas, won’t get very far if Oklahoma can’t come up with the money to support the train beyond the next fiscal year.
Ellis said the key to bringing costs down is charging passengers more for enhanced service – something he bets they’re willing to pay.
A round trip in a coach seat on the Hoosier State costs about $60. For business class, which includes bigger seats, meals and drinks, passengers will pay about $140 round-trip.
“They would love to have a better travel experience even if it costs more money,” Ellis said.
It’s one of those situations where it’s going to take broad-based support. John Maddox, program director for rail, Kansas Department of Transportation
An Amtrak spokeswoman, Vernae Graham, declined to comment.
For now, Wichita travelers have the option of taking a bus to Oklahoma City to connect with the Heartland Flyer. Pete Meitzner, a Wichita city councilman, said he took the trip recently, boarding the bus in Wichita at 5 a.m. and making the connection with the train to Fort Worth.
“It was surprisingly easy, and it was only $64,” said Meitzner, who’s a leading supporter of extending the Heartland Flyer to Wichita.
Amtrak’s Lone Star was the last regularly scheduled passenger train to depart Wichita, in October 1979.
It would cost more than $100 million to add equipment, improve tracks and build stations to bring the train back. Ongoing fiscal problems in Kansas mean the cities along the route would have to cover the operating costs that ordinarily the states would pick up.
$100 million Estimated cost to extend Heartland Flyer to Wichita
“It’s one of those situations where it’s going to take broad-based support,” said John Maddox, program director for rail at the Kansas Department of Transportation.
In the case of the Hoosier State, the cities along the route where the train stops share the cost of operating the train. The cities pay 20 percent, while the state pays the rest.
Meitzner said he’s encouraging the four cities that would become stops on an extended Heartland Flyer route, including Wichita, to make up the difference between the ticket revenue and the operating costs.
“If there’s a shortfall,” he said, “we need to step up.”
If there’s a shortfall, we need to step up. Pete Meitzner, Wichita City Council
Kansas has a willing partner in the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, which has supported the Heartland Flyer since it began operating in 1999.
Texas and Oklahoma pay Amtrak about $2.5 million and $3.5 million a year, respectively, to operate the service, which serves more than 70,000 passengers a year on its route from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.
But the Oklahoma Legislature has dipped into the $5 million annual revolving fund that supports the Heartland Flyer to plug a hole in the state’s budget. Kenna Carmen, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, said the state has enough funds to keep the train running through the next fiscal year.
Kansas has only one Amtrak route currently, the Southwest Chief, which stops in Newton, about 25 miles north of Wichita, in the wee hours of the morning. Until recently, the Chicago-Los Angeles train’s future was not guaranteed because of deteriorating track conditions in western Kansas.
70,000 Number of passengers a year on the Heartland Flyer
That’s no longer a problem, thanks to $46 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation that rehabilitated the route.
Then in December, Congress passed a long-term transportation authorization bill that included dedicated funding for Amtrak for the first time in the railroad’s 45-year history. That helps bring certainty to efforts to expand train service.
In April, Amtrak began operating a bus between Newton and Oklahoma City, via Wichita, to bridge the 180-mile gap between the two nearest routes.
Supporters of the train are confident that the next step could be the long-sought extension of the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Newton, and eventually, to Kansas City.
“I think that the train will come,” said Deborah Fischer-Stout, a passenger rail advocate in Olathe, Kansas, who’s been involved in the process for several years. “It may not be in the next couple of years, but I don’t think the sentiment is going away. The general mood is that it’s in Wichita’s future.”