While drivers on Main Street Newton were waiting on an Amtrak train for seven minutes in the middle the morning, Joe Boardman, Amtrak President and CEO, was delivering some good news.
“We are here to celebrate,” Boardman told media. “We are celebrating saving this route.”
The Southwest Chief, a long-distance passenger train traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles, which stops in Newton each morning at 3 a.m., has been preserved.
“It is a huge deal,” said Barth Hague, Newton city commissioner. “The Southwest Chief represents economic development in this community in a significant way and across central and the western part of Kansas. We have been fighting hard for a quite a while to make sure the viability of this has not been threatened. … I think this is a huge deal, not only for Newton, but for the Kansas economy.”
Just this year, Amtrak added a bus service to connect the Southwest Chief to the Northern Flyer, shuttling passengers between Newton and Oklahoma City. That, coupled with significant investments in the infrastructure of the Chief, has not only preserved the line but has Amtrak considering future expansion for Newton — the busiest rail station in the state of Kansas.
“The bus is working well,” Boardman said. “We hope the service can continue and maybe even have rail service coming all the way up from Texas through Oklahoma City, up to here. That is something that would be positive."
The future of the route was in limbo for years, as deterioration of tracks owned by BNSF needed repair for Amtrak to continue serving the route.
Successful grant applications led by Garden City, Kan., and La Junta, Colo., have resulted in $27.6 million in federal TIGER funding in the past two years. State support and contributions from Amtrak ($8 million), BNSF ($4 million) and other communities has led to the replacement of jointed rails and ties nearing the end of their service between Hutchinson, Kan., and Waldo, New Mexico. Additionally, BNSF has agreed to maintain the track at a maximum speed of 79 mph for Amtrak and 60 mph for freight trains where the bolted rail has been replaced.
“It is great news,” said Melody Spurney, director of the Newton Convention and Tourism Bureau. “This is part of Newton's identity. … The prospect of a rail connection would just enhance that.”
Boardman, along with several others, were riding a special train Thursday from Topeka to La Junta, Colo. He met with state and local officials and inspect the progress being made to preserve the route for the Amtrak Southwest Chief passenger train and to improve BNSF freight service.
“This serves communities that are not served by anything else,” Boardman said. “Aviation, and even busses today, have reduced the amount of service they provide to some parts of this country.”
Also aboard the train through Lamar, Colo., was BNSF Railway Executive Chairman Matt Rose and Interim Kansas Transportation Secretary Richard Carlson, who will be riding from Topeka to La Junta.
Boardman said the next step for the Southwest Chief is to improve the line through New Mexico and the Raton Pass.
“We have good support there,” Boardman told The Kansan. “... That is the next thing that we need to do.”
Expansion to Wichita and the Flyer will also be part of the plan — there is no timeframe for that expansion.
For that to happen, support would have to come from the states — both ridership and funding.
“You are dealing with a route that is less than 750 miles, and the law says it is a state supported service,” Boardman said.