This week Amtrak president and CEO Joe Boardman will take a special train trip, one that will pass through Newton.
"This is about the risk to that route," said Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak. "The communities have been supportive of this, but we do not have an agreement and the clock is ticking."
Possible downgrades to the BNSF rail used for freight could begin as early as 2016, and that could lead to a problem for the Southwest Chief which passes through Newton.
The special train will depart from Topeka at 9 a.m. Friday morning, headed toward Albuquerque, New Mexico, along the route of the Southwest Chief. The train will stop in Newton at approximately 10:30 a.m. and will leave for Hutchinson at about 11:15 a.m. Friday.
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 in 2012 and increased to 14,564 in 2013.
Newton is the busiest station in Kansas — and if plans for either a connector bus to Oklahoma City or an extension of the Heartland Flyer which stops in Oklahoma City come to fruition, it could be busier.
"You lose (The Southwest Chief) and you lose the idea of addition of service," Magliari said. "We have to be able to maintain what we have."
Aboard the train will be Kansas Secretary of Transportation Mike King and BNSF railway executive chair Matt Rose.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which owns the track along the Southwest Chief route, has said it would stop maintenance on the tracks in January 2016. An estimated commitment of $4 million a year for a decade from each of the two railroads and three states involved would be necessary to keep Amtrak from bypassing the portion of the Southwest Chief’s route that runs from Western Kansas through Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.
"It could become unusable for us to get to Albuquerque in any timely way," Magliari said.
Without an agreement between Amtrak, BNSF and the states affected, service along portions of the current Southwest Chief route could cease — namely in western Kansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico.
Amtrak proposed a plan to maintain the route for daily passenger rail service and share the investment between Amtrak, BNSF and the three states.
A coalition in Western Kansas and Southern Colorado has pledged $9 million to keep Amtrak's Southwest Chief on its current route through those areas and Northern New Mexico.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that coalition announced that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which owns the track along the Southwest Chief route, has said it will commit to contributing $2 million. Meanwhile, Amtrak has pledged $4 million and the Kansas Department of Transportation has committed $3 million. The coalition also is pursuing $24.5 million in federal grants.
According to a the annual Amtrak fact sheet for the state of Kansas, the present route of the Southwest Chief, via Garden City, Dodge City and Hutchinson, could be altered if sufficient capital funding is not found to modernize the line. Amtrak has been working with the states and communities that would be affected and has informed them of the situation, which results from changing freight traffic patterns. A decision on the route would have to be made by the end of 2014 for implementation in 2016.
"We have to have a way forward by the end of this year," Magliari said.