TOPEKA — Barth Hague channeled Maxwell "Max" Smart when speaking to passenger rail advocates during the Kansas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Summit about the extension of the Heartland Flyer, a passenger train that currently serves Fort Worth, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Newton.

 

“A year ago, we were this close,” he said.

 

Amtrak and BNSF officials rode an inspection train filled with local lawmakers from Oklahoma City to Newton, and beyond. It was learned, at that time, that there would not need to be hundreds of millions of dollars invested to operate a passenger train between Oklahoma City and Newton.

 

It was welcome news to advocates who have been working to get that extension moving for more than a decade.

 

However, things have stalled out. Amtrak cast a shadow of doubt over the Southwest Chief, which serves Newton on a daily basis. BNSF has slowed its work to study the Heartland Flyer.

 

Discussion has picked up again this fall, as the Kansas Legislature has been hosting Transportation Vision Task Force meetings throughout the state — and passenger rail has been discussed at several of those meetings.

 

Front and center of those discussions have been not only saving the Southwest Chief, but extending the Heartland Flyer to connect with it.

 

Mike Moriarty, Kansas Department of Transportation Chief of Transportation Planning, said that for Kansas to move forward, a decision by the task force is needed.

 

“While Kansas Department of Transportation has not been participating in passenger rail in the past, that may change,” Moriarty said.

 

The Kansas Legislature did start a passenger rail fund in 2012 by authorizing the secretary of transportation to place funds within it. That could be used for capital improvements and operations in the future.

 

An extension of the Heartland Flyer would include stops in Edmond, Guthrie, Perry and Ponca City, Oklahoma, and Arkansas City, Wichita and Newton, Kansas.