Newton city commissioners voted at their Tuesday meeting to contribute up to $15,000 to a coalition working to prevent the re-routing of Amtrak’s “Southwest Chief” line.
The current route, which includes a section of aging track between Newton and Raton, N.M., is declining in quality, and Amtrak is considering bypassing western Kansas and Colorado.
City Manager Randy Riggs said several other cities in the region, including Hutchinson and Dodge City, already have contributed financially to the project to preserve the current route, and they are concerned about the negative impact a route change could have.
“They see it as a life-or -death issue for part of their economic puzzle,” Riggs said.
The Southwest Chief runs between Chicago and Los Angeles and includes a stop in Newton. Amtrak has been using some tracks owned by the BNSF railway company for the Southwest Chief, but the differing standards required by the two companies have created some complications.
Due to deteriorating track conditions, the track between Newton and Raton has had its speed limit reduced from 90 mph to 79 mph, and even 60 mph in some locations. Although the BNSF only needs track that is safe for a speed limit of about 45 mph, Amtrak would like to operate its trains much faster.
“The lower speed limit, ... when it comes to passenger rail, creates all sorts of problems,” Riggs said.
He reported BNSF and Amtrak need to decide by 2014 whether to proceed with track renovations or seek an alternate route for the Southwest Chief that would pass through Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, and avoid western Kansas and Colorado.
Estimated cost to repair the Newton to Raton track segment is about $100 million.
The funds Newton is contributing to the project will help hire the firm Alston & Bird of Washington, D.C., to work on the Southwest Chief project.
Commissioner Willis Heck expressed his support for the project and said he thought it was important for cities to work together to promote economic progress in the region.
“I think it’s a regional issue,” he said. “I think that passenger rail is very important.”
Another potential rail project the city is investigating is a proposed Amtrak route called the Heartland Flyer, which would extend a track running from Texas to Oklahoma up to Newton and Wichita.
“Those two separate conversations meet and converge right here in our downtown,” Riggs said of the two rail projects. “It’s important that Newton pay attention.”