Amtrak funding — and the future of the national passenger rail service — is a big issue.
There's everything from deteriorating track conditions on the Southwest Chief — a long distance line that currently serves Newton — to the extension of the "Heartland Flyer" from Oklahoma to Kansas City to the more than a billion in federal funding received for the railroad to operate.
In 2012, Amtrak earned approximately $2.877 billion in revenue and incurred approximately $4.036 billion in expense. The U.S. House funding proposal would trim federal funding to $950 million, a senate proposal would put funding at $1.45 billion. The 2013 spending bill set federal funds at $1.3 billion.
As the debate wages on, DFM Research from St. Paul, Minn., conducted a poll — and those they asked showed overwhelming support for maintaining funding for Amtrak. The company surveyed 3,000 people in eight congressional districts. About 70 percent responded that Amtrak funding should remain level when informed cuts to funding could mean a loss of service. Those districts were in Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Colorado.
In Kansas DFM polled voters in the first and second congressional districts. In the first district, 57 percent of respondents said to keep funding level, and 18 said it should be increased. In the second district, 47 percent said to keep it where it is, while 22 percent said to increase funding. Support for funding crossed party lines — 64 percent of Republicans said funding should be kept level or increased, 85 percent of Democrats agreed. Only Tea Party members advocated for elimination of funding — with 51 percent.
"Americans want more passenger service, said Ed Wytkind, Transportation Trades Dept. AFL-CIO which helped fund the poll. " "What we are trying to do is bring some of the toxic politics that dominate most issues in Washington out of the debate of whether we fund Amtrak. … John Q needs to decide how important this is to him or her. If it is important, they need to be more vocal with those they elect to office — ask what they are doing to expand or improve service in our area."
Locally that means advocating to preserve the Southwest Chief, and to expand service through the Heartland Flyer.
The Heartland Flyer currently runs between Fort Worth, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Okla. A group called the Northern Flyer Alliance is working to extend that line to Kansas City — with a possible stop in Newton.
The Southwest Chief stops in Newton at about 3 a.m. each day. Passengers can head to Chicago or Los Angles via the rail — and ridership out of Newton is increasing. According to Amtrak, 13,890 passengers either got on or off at the Newton station in 2011. That number increased to 14,131 last year.
Deteriorating track conditions in south-central and southwest Kansas have forced the Southwest Chief, which goes through the state on its run between Chicago and Los Angeles, to slow in Kansas. Amtrak has indicated it will reroute the Southwest Chief when its contract with BNSF Railway expires in 2015 if the line isn't upgraded.
Amtrak is looking to make a decision about the route sometime in 2014. Amtrak has proposed splitting the cost of an estimated $200 million in track repairs five ways between the three states, Amtrak and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. Each would pay $4 million per year over a 10-year period.
Amtrak operates a nationwide rail network, serving more than 500 destinations in 46 states, the District of Columbia and
three Canadian provinces on more than 21,300 miles of routes, with approximately 20,000 employees.
Amtrak carried a record 31.6 million passengers in Fiscal Year 2013 while ticket revenue hit a record $2.1 billion.
"Amtrak is still performing — ridership is at record levels," Wytkind said. "Despite that we nickel and dime them, they break records every year. … Our message is clear — expanding Amtrak service is not a blue state thing, or a red state thing, it is about economic development."