A project to expand passenger rail service across the Midwest, potentially extending from Missouri to Texas, is under way, but it could be several years before consumers see the new trains in service.


A project to expand passenger rail service across the Midwest, potentially extending from Missouri to Texas, is under way, but it could be several years before consumers see the new trains in service.
That’s if financial concerns and logistics don’t derail the project first.
Amtrak released a study, conducted jointly with the Kansas Department of Transportation, earlier this year about the feasibility of linking several major cities in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and possibly Missouri with rail service.
Now KDOT and Amtrak officials are reaching out to the communities that stand to reap the rewards of the proposed expansion — and which will shoulder a great deal of the tax burden — for feedback on the potential service options.
The feasibility study identified four options and included details like cities served, times trains might run, estimated ridership and prices for each. Before Amtrak can move forward with the expansion, there needs to be an agreement on which plan will be implemented.
In order to gauge public opinion about the proposed plans, KDOT and Amtrak officials conducted an informational meeting Wednesday night in Newton and similar meetings in other cities to solicit feedback from community members.
At the event, an eight-minute video presentation was shown on a loop for people arriving throughout the evening. Large posters were on display with time lines, financial breakdowns and comparisons of the different service options being considered.
Attendees also were given a survey upon arrival, which asked them to provide feedback on all four proposed routes and answer questions about their own interests in using the services, if established.
Tom Hein, a KDOT official, said it’s hard to judge so far which plan might be chosen. He said all have merits and drawbacks.
“Well, everybody likes number three, but the cost makes people more hesitant,” he said.
So far, events similar to the one in Newton have been conducted in Wichita, Arkansas City and Lawrence. There will be three more similar events in coming weeks in other cities that may fall along the expanded rail line. Hein said the response so far to the events has been positive, with good turnouts and lots of feedback.
Amtrak official Derek James said people in different communities seem interested in different plans. They are generally interested in one that will benefit their area most while keeping costs minimal.
“People have seen the benefits in every single one,” he said.
He also said, although surveys have been collected at every meeting, they have not been reviewed thoroughly enough to determine a clear favorite or even a front-runner.
Another KDOT official, Joel Skelley, said he had gotten questions about options one and three for the most part. Option one would be a night service connecting Newton to Fort Worth, at an initial cost of $155.8 million and an additional annual cost of $3.2 million. Option three would extend from Kansas City, Mo., to Fort Worth with daytime service, at a cost of $479.1 million initially, and an annual cost of $8.1 million.
Other options vary only slightly. Option two would link Kansas City to Fort Worth via an overnight service at an initial cost of $317 million, with an annual cost of $5.2 million. Option four would connect Kansas City to Oklahoma City via a day service, and cost $309.1 million initially, with an annual cost of $6.4 million. All four options would have stops in Newton.
Options one and two take advantage of other major rail lines and serve as connectors. Options three and four are intended as stand-alone services, though travelers could make connections if they were willing to wait several hours or overnight to do so.
Once a plan is chosen, the project is still years from completion. Amtrak must implement its Service Development Plan, which alone takes 12 to 16 months, and earn an environmental clearance from the Kansas Legislature, which would allow Amtrak to access federal and state funding.
The soonest the expansion could be approved by the Legislature is 2012. Once approved, several train stations would need to be built or remodeled, and more track laid.
Depending on which route plan is chosen, the construction could delay further the completion date, as some cities along proposed routes lack necessary infrastructure. In Newton, few changes would be necessary to the existing train station.
Ultimately, what KDOT and Amtrak hope to glean from meetings like Wednesday’s, and the others planned throughout the state, is how the new service will be received.
Some of the questions on the survey address directly potential passengers’ willingness to travel by rail despite the longer travel time and sometimes higher cost compared to air travel and driving.
Ronald Dietzel, a Newton resident at the event, said his last trip via rail was pleasant and that he would, at some point, probably use the expanded service.
But he also summed up the thought most travelers have when considering rail, “Only question is — does it go where I want to go?”
Amtrak and KDOT hope the result of these events and surveys will lead to a resounding “yes.”