Passenger Rail Concerns Mount

By: Phil White Email
By: Phil White Email

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Concerns continue to mount about the future of passenger rail service in southwest Kansas as three secretaries of transportation tell Amtrak their states may not be able to afford to maintain rails used by passenger trains.

Amtrak's Southwest Chief, which runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, currently stops at Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City. But changes in BNSF Railway's freight routes could force Amtrak to reroute the Southwest Chief at Newton, bypassing the parts of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico it serves now.

A Wichita City Councilman believes Wichita needs to ensure it is a stop on the Southwest Chief, if it is rerouted at Newton. Though any decision about the future of the line is a few years away, Pete Meitzner said the city needs to be ready.

"Fortunately, for the past six months, we've focused a lot on personal capital -- not any dollar capital -- on looking into the expansion of passenger rail," he said.

Those efforts have focused on extending Amtrak's Northern Flyer, which now runs between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, to Wichita and Newton.

Newton's City Manager Randy Riggs said he is hopeful the Southwest Chief can stay on its current route and the Northern Flyer will be extended.

"We like the prospect of having rail passengers on one line stopping and pausing for a day or half a day or two days in our downtown," Riggs said. "That sounds like a good thing for our economy."

The economy is what has the route in question.

A letter sent to Amtrak by the secretaries of transportation in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico said the states cannot commit right now to the $100 million in improvements needed for the BNSF line currently used by the Southwest Chief.

Those concerns are why Newton and other communities served by the Southwest Chief are working to find a solution.

"If we don't pay attention to those things today, then we're all going to miss out," Riggs said.

Meitzner said Wichita needs to take a serious look at investing in passenger rail. He said that could be beneficial for the Kansas economy.

"This is for the state as much as it is for the city," he said. "We need to look at it very seriously."

Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico have until 2014 to find the money or offer a solution. If neither happens, Amtrak may change the Southwest Chief's route in 2016.

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