Newton Mayor Barth Hague is no stranger to train travel, and has been a proponent of Amtrak for decades. As a member of a board of church publications based in Indiana, he has made frequent use of the Southwest Chief to travel from here to there.
He has also been advocating for the expansion of the Heartland Flyer, which if expanded could add a southbound train to the schedule at the Newton train station — connecting Newton to Wichita, Oklahoma City and the state of Texas.
He will be attending a hearing of the Oklahoma Legislature Sept. 6, along with the mayor of Wichita, to discuss the extension of the train. The Oklahoma Legislature is looking at a study on extension of the Heartland Flyer done by the state of Kansas.
“There has been some movement on the Amtrak front,” Hague said. “This is the result of BNSF which owns the (rail) line and Amtrak that wants to run a train on it.”
The Heartland Flyer, which serves Oklahoma and Texas cities, is currently funded by those states. Amtrak receives funding from 18 states through 21 agencies for financial support of 29 short-distance routes (less than 750 miles).
“Right now that train is funded by Texas and Oklahoma, so we certainly can not do anything without working with them, and they want to work on it,” said Marc Magliari, spokesman for Amtrak.
“There will be need for an effort to put some good, positive advoacy pressure on our state to jump forward to provide funding,” Hague said.
The Kansan first reported on the efforts to extend the Heartland Flyer in 2008. In 2012 the Kansas Department of Transportation estimated the cost of improvements needed for the Newton route would be $87.5 million. The Kansas City route would cost about $245.5 million. The vision for the project includes a daytime passenger train that would travel from Dallas/Fort Worth to the Wichita/Newton area.
Those costs estimates have been adjusted since that time, and according to Hague, the plan is much more attainable.
“What Amtrak and BNSF have figured out is there might be a way to extend the line without ($100 million) in track improvements,” Hague said.
Amtrak ran an inspection train along the BNSF Railway from Oklahoma City to Kansas City, which stopped in Newton at roughly 1 p.m. on June 9.
As the train came to a halt at the Newton train station, it was met by hundreds of area supporters, who flooded the station along the tracks. Leading up to the train’s arrival many of those supporters chatted with each other, expressing fond memories of the south-bound rail.
At all of the proposed stops along the way, Hague said there were supporters – in towns, there were larger crowds, but even in the country, there were smaller groups standing alongside the tracks to show their support.
At this time, Newton is the busiest train station in Kansas. According to Amtrak, the station hosted 13,741 alightings in 2016, the most recent numbers available. Currently the only train serving the Newton station is the Southwest Chief, a long-distrance train between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Supporters of the expansion of the Heartland Flyer tout a connection in Newton — a way for travelers from Texas and Oklahoma to connect with the Southwest Chief, and vice-versa.
Amtrak announced a bus connection between Newton and Oklahoma City — following the proposed route of the extended Heartland Flyer — in 2016. At the time, officials said the bus route could be the precursor to extending the rail route.
“We have been pleased with how ridership has gone with that service,” said Mark Maglari said. “We have had places in the country where busses have grown into trains. We did that in Maine. Some of those schedules that are trains were once busses.”
The Heartland Flyer currently operates from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, Texas. At Fort Worth, passengers have the opportunity to connect to the Texas Chief, which runs from Chicago to San Antonio – one of the long-distance trains in the country.
The proposed expansion would essentially connect from Newton all the way to Fort Worth – in other words, past Oklahoma City to Newton.
Doing so would provide a way for passengers to connect from the Southwest Chief, which currently comes through Newton, all the way to San Antonio and then catch the southern train that runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles.