Wichita officials get to ride the rails in sneak peek at passenger travel

The old Amtrak platform at Union Station in downtown Wichita.
The old Amtrak platform at Union Station in downtown Wichita. File photo

In order to realize a dream, it helps if people can see what it looks like.

Or so the thinking goes among local politicians and train officials who are hoping to bring back passenger rail travel to Wichita after nearly 40 years.

On Friday, officials will have an opportunity to travel the route to see for themselves what passenger rail would look like and learn about what kinds of improvements are needed to make it happen. Wichita is one of only a handful of large cities that don’t have direct access to Amtrak.

The observation train will depart Oklahoma City at 7:45 a.m., stop in Wichita above Union Station just after noon, arrive in Newton at around 1 p.m. and then head to Kansas City where it will arrive around 5:30 p.m.

Officials will ride in a special observation car that is all glass in the back, while officials from BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks, explain what they are seeing as they ride along and what kinds of improvements would be needed to make the dream of passenger rail service a reality.

One of the main issues is that passenger rail needs to travel faster than freight trains, so they will look at adding short stretches of additional tracks where a passenger train could speed up and pass a freight train. These improvements would have the added benefit of improving Wichita’s freight service, said city councilman Pete Meitzner.

Meitzner believes there are several reasons to be optimistic about passenger travel returning this time around. First, he said, the passenger train that passes through Newton, on its way from Los Angeles to Chicago, has now proven itself to be financially viable.

And last year Amtrak added a bus that connected passengers from Oklahoma City to Newton, where passengers could then ride on to Kansas City and Chicago, or reverse direction and head towards New Mexico and Los Angeles.

Meitzner said that the early response to this service has been positive. An official with Amtrak said ridership data on the new service will be made available Friday. With data to support the potential demand, the Wichita officials could start dreaming about the economic benefits of connecting the I-35 corridor from Oklahoma City to Kansas City.

Ultimately, Meitzner thinks the route will become financially sustainable on its own, but it may need some help from the state of Kansas at first (to split the cost with Oklahoma and Texas), which he knows is a tough task in this fiscal environment.

“We’re in a spot that’s difficult, but the future looks very positive on this,” Meitzner said.

So he’s asking people to dream: Imagine a freshman college student from Dallas, who has taken advantage of a tuition agreement to attend Wichita State, taking the train home for the holidays. Or imagine alumni taking the train to watch the Shockers beat Southern Methodist University.

The public is invited to see their public officials get on the train.

“A show of support at each train station would certainly show officials that investing in this corridor is a really good idea,” the Facebook event page states. “This will give public officials some idea of how popular this train will be, and it gives the public an opportunity to voice their support.”

Although the trip isn’t open to the public, the Eagle will publish pictures and video from the trip between Wichita and Newton on Friday.

“We’re guessing as word of it spreads, people will come out and wave and take pictures,” said Marc Magliari, a spokesperson for Amtrak. “That’s fine, but do it from safe places.”

Friday train schedule

A full list of public officials who will ride was not yet available (in part because it was unclear whether state politicians would be free by Friday), but the trip is expected to include officials from Amtrak, BNSF, all three states’ transportation departments, local officials and representatives of the media.

Here is the schedule for Friday:

7:45 a.m. depart Oklahoma City Santa Fe Station (downtown)

8:30 a.m. depart Guthrie

9:15 a.m. depart Perry

10 a.m. depart Ponca City

10:45 a.m. depart Arkansas City

12:05 p.m. depart Wichita’s Union Station, 801 E. Douglas

1 p.m. depart Newton

2:20 p.m. depart Emporia

3:45 p.m. depart Topeka

5:30 p.m. arrive Kansas City Union Station

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison