Led by Sen. Carolyn McGinn (R-Sedgwick), the Kansas Senate Ways and Means Committee hosted a discussion and luncheon about passenger rail — including a possible extension of the Heartland Flyer that would connect a current line from Dallas that ends at Oklahoma City to Newton.
"It is very good timing," McGinn said. "We will most likely be voting on a transportation plan next year. ... We need to have rail at that table."
Kansas creates a 10-year transportation plan, and a new plan will be due soon. McGinn is wanting to have passenger rail as a part of that conversation, with Tuesday a day that began in many ways.
She said turnout for the meeting was "good," with about 75 people on hand to support passenger rail — and the Heartland Flyer. That is the result, she said, of conversations that happened last summer at a meeting of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Coalition which met in Wichita. She was a part of those meetings.
During Wednesday's meeting came some progress for those efforts — nothing earth shattering like announcing the extension would happen but encouraging to proponents of the expansion.
"The surprising piece is that (the Kansas Department of Transportation) has asked Amtrak to update the 2011 feasibility study," said Barth Hague, former mayor and long-time proponent of the Flyer extension. "We're making progress on the extension of the Heartland Flyer. ... It is inching toward the goal line. I will take any action."
Hague was part of a contingent from Newton and cities that would be served by the Heartland Flyer to attend the meeting Jan. 23.
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).
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.
McGinn told The Kansan she has met with transportation officials from Texas and Oklahoma, through the rail coalition.
"They have an interest in closing that gap between Newton and Oklahoma City," McGinn said.
Those costs estimates have been adjusted since that time, and according to Hague, the plan is much more attainable. The initial estimates included renovations to an existing set of freight rail lines to allow for speeds of nearly 80 miles per hour for passenger trains. However, Amtrak has looked at operating trains slower than that speed to establish the line.
"There is a new sense in the with the players that a better approach is to start smaller, starting running at freight speeds and build, rather than swallow this all at once."
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.
Amtrak ran an inspection train along the BNSF Railway from Oklahoma City to Kansas City, which stopped in Newton in June of last year. Hauge rode that train, and told The Kansan that while it wasn't fast, it was "direct."
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.
"That gives us some numbers to consider," McGinn said. "We need more information to find out what it will cost to operate (a train.) ... They will research the criteria of if you going to be an on-time all the time train. There are fines if you can not meet that."
Also part of that research is how much less it could cost if the train traveled at "freight speed," sloer thana standard 79 mile-per-hour passenger rail speed. That was done when Amtrak brought an inspection train to Newton last year.