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Inspection train reveals strong support for connecting Southwest Chief, Heartland Flyer services
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Inspection train reveals strong support for connecting Southwest Chief, Heartland Flyer services

Passenger rail service through Kansas is currently limited to just one daily round-trip train, the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief, which has six stops across Kansas (Lawrence, Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City). But that may change in wake of a June 9th inspection train from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma to Kansas City, Missouri, and following strong ridership on an Amtrak Thruway bus connection that commenced in April of 2016.

The trip was an evaluation of a section of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) right-of-way to explore of the possibility of extending the Oklahoma/Texas state-supported Heartland Flyer service (Fort Worth, Texas-Oklahoma City, Okla.) north to Newton, Kan., with hopes to connect it with the existing Southwest Chief line.

Along the way, the inspection train met with enthusiastic local crowds (well documented in local media coverage – here, here and here, for example – and in online social media feeds) in the Oklahoma communities of Guthrie, Perry and Ponca City, and the Kansas communities of Arkansas City, Wichita, Newton, Emporia and Topeka. A video of the train's reception in Wichita can be seen here.

The Topeka Capital-Journal quoted Joe McHugh, vice president of Amtrak’s state supported services business development, saying the level of interest seen Friday at those showed promise for opening a Texas-Kansas route.

Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner, who is one of Kansas’ appointees to MIPRC, said the train ride advanced the cooperation between the Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas departments of transportation, BNSF, and Amtrak to connect the gap between Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton.

“The positive momentum to extend the Heartland Flyer is further boosted with the stabilization of the Southwest Chief, and the year-plus worth of ridership data from the current Thruway Bus Service,” Meitzner said. “And most noteworthy are the social media comments of nearly 200,000 views just on the Facebook pages of the cities between Newton and Oklahoma City. Clearly, the citizens in this area believe it has tremendous value, and they support their respective states’ efforts to invest in this service.”

Wichita – where MIPRC will hold its annual meeting from Oct. 9-11 – last had scheduled passenger train service in 1979, when Amtrak’s Lone Star route between Chicago and Houston was discontinued. Communities from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City have been served since 1999 by the Heartland Flyer, which is sponsored by the Oklahoma and Texas departments of transportation and makes connections to the Amtrak Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited trains in Fort Worth and San Antonio.

Extending the Flyer to Newton is an ongoing topic with local, state and federal officials, Amtrak and BNSF, but passenger demand seems to be there.

In mid-April 2016, Amtrak began a Thruway Bus Connection between Newton, Kansas, and Oklahoma City, via Wichita. Southbound buses leave Newton’s Amtrak station at 4 a.m., stop in Wichita at 5 a.m. and arrive at Oklahoma City’s Amtrak station at 7:35 a.m. Northbound buses leave Oklahoma City at 10:40 p.m., stop in Wichita at 1:35 a.m. and arrive in Newton at 2:15 a.m.

Even with the inconvenient hours, ridership has been good and has grown steadily; according to Amtrak, bus ridership in May 2017 was 389, an 18.6 percent increase over May 2016, the first full month of the bus service.

McHugh told the Capital-Journal that next steps toward establishing passenger rail service will be figuring out what that service would look like, how much it would cost and what capital investments would be necessary to build infrastructure – work that likely would last through the summer and fall of this year, he told the newspaper.

Then, he told the newspaper, Amtrak will go back to its stakeholders and potentially to Congress to see whether there may be opportunities to leverage funds.

Establishing passenger service north of Oklahoma City could take different forms, McHugh told the newspaper: Amtrak could take a “cross-platform model”, where passengers would need to change trains in the middle of the night, or Amtrak could add cars to the end of its Southwest Chief trains with the additional cars changing lines at Newton.

A Service Development Plan (SDP) for restoring passenger rail service between Oklahoma City, Wichita and Kansas City – dubbed the "Northern Flyer" by advocates – was developed for the Kansas Department of Transportation in 2011 (with cooperation/assistance from the Missouri and Texas departments of transportation, BNSF Railway Company, Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration). The SDP, along with other related information and documents, can be found on KSDOT’s passenger rail webpage.

(Photo of crowd at Wichita station on June 9, 2017, courtesy of Pete Meitzner)

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