Politics & Government

Can Wichita get Amtrak train service back? Backers’ hopes ride on next year

Amtrak makes rare pass through Wichita

An Amtrak train made a stop in downtown Wichita June, 2017 for the first time since the late 1970s. Several communities along the I-35 corridor between Dallas and Wichita are trying to get Amtrak to begin service through the area.
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An Amtrak train made a stop in downtown Wichita June, 2017 for the first time since the late 1970s. Several communities along the I-35 corridor between Dallas and Wichita are trying to get Amtrak to begin service through the area.

Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this story contained an incorrect name for the Amtrak spokesman. It is Marc Magliari.

Chime Onwugbufor lives in Wichita, works in Chicago and commutes on Amtrak.

To get to his job at the tony Tortoise Supper Club, he catches the Amtrak Thruway bus about 1 a.m. in Wichita, transfers to the Southwest Chief train at Newton, and pulls in to Chicago’s Union Station a little before 3 p.m.

“I have many other accesses,” said Onwugbufor. “I can fly, but I often like to take the train because it’s just relaxing and my own private time. I take this train maybe two or three times a month.”

Chime Onwugbufor lives in Wichita and uses Amtrak to commute to his job in Chicago. Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

Ongwubufor’s not alone in his preference for train travel, which allows him to sleep, work or sightsee on his long commute.

In the past year, 4,900 travelers have boarded the Thruway bus that passes through Wichita to fill a gap in rail service between stations in Oklahoma City and Newton, according to Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak in Chicago.

Of those, more than 1,700 were Wichita boarders who took the bus to connect to the train in Newton, he said.

“We’ve been really happy with it,” Magliari said.

But the long-term hope of Amtrak, its passengers and Wichita city government is that actual rail service will be restored to the Wichita gap. They’ve been trying for years to do that without a whole lot of progress.

Things are looking better this year because of the convergence of several factors: Federal dollars might be available. State finances are healthier. Amtrak has made a definitive decision to continue the Los Angeles-to-Chicago route that any Wichita train service would have to connect to. And City Hall has pushed rail service higher on its legislative wish list.

Ken Evan, a city spokesman who works with its state and federal lobbyists, said he rates the chance of getting Amtrak restored around 50-50.

“We’ve had years where it’s been much lower,” he said.

The city hasn’t had passenger train service since 1979. Bringing it back is at the top of a list of transportation priorities in City Hall’s lobbying agenda for the state legislative session that starts next month.

“Passenger rail is evolving as a key component for keeping and attracting young people as part of a strong workforce,” the legislative platform says. “In addition, it provides a safe travel option for an aging population.”

But while Wichita is all on board for rail service, Sedgwick County isn’t.

Last month, both local governments were asked to provide a list of their transportation priorities to a state committee evaluating long-term transportation plans for Kansas.

Both cited as their first priority the completion of the North Junction, Wichita’s worst freeway interchange, where interstates 135 and 235 come together with the K-254 and K-96 state freeways. On Nov. 20, Gov. Jeff Colyer announced a $65 million project to begin work on improving that interchange.

Amtrak was the No. 2 priority on Wichita’s wish list, but didn’t appear at all on Sedgwick County’s.

County Commission Chairman David Dennis said he’s not ready to embrace Amtrak because he has yet to see hard numbers.

“Until I get the answers to what the cost is and the benefit, I can’t say that I’m supportive or against it,” Dennis said.

But the county’s stance could change with a change in makeup of the commission.

Pete Meitzner is the area’s leading advocate for passenger rail and has been spearheading the Wichita effort for years. He won a seat on the County Commission in the November election and will join the commission in January.

Meitzner said he hopes to change the county’s stance on passenger rail.

Cost estimates have been requested, but aren’t done yet, Meitzner said. But he said he expects the initial outlay would be minimal.

The passenger service could use existing tracks that now handle about 20 freight trains a day, he said. And no new train would need to be purchased because Kansas service would be a fairly simple extension of a train that already stops and sits overnight in Oklahoma City.

The train would have to run at freight speed, about 60 mph, instead of Amtrak’s top speed of 79 mph. But that wouldn’t be a hardship because even at the lower speed, passengers would have plenty of time to make connections at either end, Meitzner said.

Amtrak did a test run between Newton and Oklahoma City last year to check the tracks and proclaimed it a success.

Meitzner said federal funds are available for restoring service where it used to exist and he hopes to convince the state to apply.

With the state’s help, Wichita passenger service could be up and running in one to two years, he said.

Looking to state

Rep. Dan Hawkins, the new Republican leader in the state House, and Rep. Tom Sawyer, the Democratic leader, said they’d both heard from constituents who want train service in Wichita.

“I think it’s something that’s going to be talked about in Transportation (Committee) this session,” Hawkins said.

Sawyer said getting federal money for it would likely require some state matching funds. That could end up being just a very small fraction of a comprehensive 10-year transportation plan the Legislature is expected to craft this year, he said.

The transportation plan is expected to call for hundreds of millions, possibly billions, of dollars in spending.

Commissioner Jim Howell said Meitzner’s presence on the county board might prompt the county to rethink Amtrak.

“I would not be surprised if we would have new discussions and possibly change our priorities a little bit, and do what we can to chase down our previous comments and straighten things back up again if we have any opportunity to do so,” he said.

The other incoming commissioner, Lacey Cruse, did not reply to phone calls and an e-mail seeking her position on Amtrak.

Taking a bus to a train

Trina Rice, of Kansas City, proclaims herself “a faithful rider of the Amtrak.” A resident of Kansas City, she took the train and bus to Oklahoma City for an extended Thanksgiving holiday visit with family.

Trina Rice of Kansas City describes herself as a “faithful rider of the Amtrak.” Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

“I like the ride,” she explained, during a stop for the bus to pick up passengers in Wichita.

Don Bohnert, a retired trucker who drives the bus a couple of times a week, said ridership goes up and down.

“Most of the time we’ll average from around six to 15,” he said. “The biggest load I’ve ever had was one night I had a Boy Scout troop from San Antonio. I had 23 in the troop besides the rest of them. And there’s been a few times I haven’t had any passengers at all.”

He said he enjoys driving the route, but wouldn’t mind if they replace him and his bus with a train.

“There’s plenty of other work for me to do,” he said, smiling.

Meitzner says Wichita passenger rail service isn’t just a Wichita thing, but would benefit most of the state.

There’s evidence for that among the riders who boarded the Amtrak Thruway bus on a recent chilly Thursday morning.

Transportation options

Riley Bond was passing through from Manter, a town of 175 near the Colorado border, on his way to visit his sister in Oklahoma City.

He was riding the Amtrak because it’s cheaper and easier for him to use than other alternatives.

“You just got to go 50 miles up to Garden City to get on it,” he said.

But he said he would prefer to be able to ride the train all the way.

“It would definitely be easier, just go straight through,” he said.

Supporters of Wichita passenger rail say you just have to look at a map to see the transportation options it would open up.

The train route that could be extended to include Wichita and Newton is called the Heartland Flyer. It currently runs from Oklahoma City south to Fort Worth.

From there, passengers can connect to the Texas Eagle to east Texas and Arkansas. Ot they can continue south as far as San Antonio.

At San Antonio, passengers can connect to the Sunset Limited that runs east to New Orleans and west to destinations including El Paso, Tucson and Phoenix.

Northbound from Wichita, the train would connect to the Southwest Chief at Newton That train runs from Los Angeles to Chicago with stops in Garden City, Dodge City, Hutchinson, Topeka, Lawrence and Kansas City, Mo.

Earlier this year, Amtrak had considered replacing part of the Southwest Chief route with a bus connection between Dodge City and Albuquerque because of poor track conditions where the train passes through Colorado.

But that plan was scrapped and the Southwest Chief saved when Congress appropriated $50 million for track improvements in August.

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.