Brent Peterson can't imagine life without the Southwest Chief.
"Not when I have been watching it for 15 years," said the man who is an Amtrak a ticket agent in the Newton train station.
He estimates he has watched the train stop and go at the station about 3,500 times during an on again, off again career with the passenger rail service.
"I've never had a night where someone did not get on or off," Peterson said. "And there have been some nights no one should be out, but they still come here."
Newton is the busiest — or as Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman puts it "the most poplar" — rail station in the state.
Boardman, along with Kansas Secretary of Transportation Mike King and BNSF railway executive chair Matt Rose stopped in Newton aboard a special train Friday. They picked up city commissioners. The topic of discussion was sure to be the future of passenger rail service in Kansas.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which owns the track along the Southwest Chief route, has said it would stop maintenance on the tracks at the end of a current contract with Amtrak 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 the Northern New Mexico.
It could bring an end to the Chief in its current form. Something vice-mayor Glen Davis does not want to see happen.
"I can't imagine Newton without the railroad," said Glen Davis, vice mayor of Newton. "The passenger train is important, and should be going both directions — south to Texas and the east west. It is important to our economy. It is also important to the state of Kansas. We should do all we can to support the railroad."
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.
For those wanting to preserve the Southwest Chief, Boardman had a message for them Friday morning.
"Get involved and be engaged," Boardman said. "Understand that the community depends on people being educated and understanding that this is an important service and the folks that want the service need to be involved."
Duane Koppes, a rail fan who was at the station Friday to just to see the train, said those upcoming decisions are important not only to maintain the current level of service, but also to the future of Newton. Koppes took two trips on the Chief this year, and has seen how rail service has enhanced other communities.
He wants to see not only the Southwest Chief continue, but an extension of a line from Oklahoma City north to Newton.
"I have wanted to go to Texas so many times," he said. "And our downtown needs that kind of vibrancy."