The Amtrak ticketing office in Newton will now be open seven days a week, one of the most immediate impacts from the announcement of a bus service now offered to connect the Southwest Chief and the Heartland Flyer rail lines.
“Newton gets more connection to the south,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman. “We'll see if it changes how many people drive to Newton. It might, but you will have a same day connection from Newton to Austin (Texas), a same day connection from Newton to Fort Worth (Texas) … Those people who drive to Newton will have many more places to go to.”
The connection was formally annouced during a Wichita press conference Monday. Amtrak placed tickets online last week and welcomed the first riders over the weekend.
The Southwest Chief stops in Newton seven days a week — the eastbound train heading to Kansas City and Chicago, and the westbound train headed to Colorado and Los Angeles. Over the course of the past four to five years there has been investment into the infrastructure of the Southwest Chief in an attempt to protect the line in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.
The Heartland Flyer connects Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Fort Worth, Texas.
“We have spent the last four years making sure we shored up the Southwest Chief and we got in great shape,” said Mike King, “Now it is time to start focusing on this connection to Oklahoma City.”
The bus connection represents the first connection between Amtrak and Wichita since 1979, when the Lone Star line was discontinued. The closure of the Lone Star Line, and the subsequent addition of the Heartland Flyer in 1999, created a gap in service that Magliari said could be filled with a bus service.
Tickets on the bus are not available without a train ticket — meaning online booking will not allow for a ticket from Newton to Wichita, or to Oklahoma City, without making a connection with either the Chief or the Flyer.
The bus line will be operated by Village Tours, a company with offices in Wichita and Oklahoma City. Passengers coming from the south to connect to the Chief will arrive in Newton at about 2:15 a.m. each morning. The bus will leave for Oklahoma City at about 4 a.m. each morning. Ticketing for the bus line will be managed by Newton station ticket agents.
However, this is a step in possibly bringing a second train to Newton. There has been a nearly decade long effort to extend the Heartland Flyer northward to Wichita and possibly Newton.
The Heartland Flyer has been targeted for expansion for a number of years by a group called the Northern Flyer Alliance. The alliance has been working for an extension of the Heartland Flyer designed to make a connection with the Southwest Chief. Suggested stations for that connection include Newton and Kansas City, Missouri.
“This is a small step in that direction,” Magliari said. “There are places we grew a bus into a train … We have a bigger bus feeder network in California than we have a train network, and we have a huge train network in California. All of this can grow. I'd love to see a day where there is a train each way and a bus each way, and that can happen.”
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.
The Northern Flyer Alliance is a group of 49 cities, six counties and 19 Chambers of Commerce along the I-35 corridor stretching from Kansas City to Fort Worth that have joined together to promote the reintroduction of passenger rail in their communities and the Tri-State Region that includes Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Those involved with the alliance, along with city leaders from Newton and Wichita, have “exposed a hole” in the Amtrak Network, according to Magliari.
The first step in closing the hole is the bus connection.
“I think it is a great addition to the rail service we have in town. I hope it is a precursor of things to come,” said Barth Hague, city commissioner and a regular user of Amtrak services.
Newton is currently the busiest rail stop in the state of Kansas, with more than 13,000 boardings and alightings in 2015 — Topeka was second on the list with 10,399. Total usage for the state was 49,673.
“It does draw people to town, while it does stop early in the morning and we may not see the impact to retail we might see with a different time,” said Melody Spurney, Convention and Visitor's Bureau Coordinator at City of Newton. “Anytime you are bringing people to Newton as a destination point or a launch point to the trip, that is good. The CVB gets inquiries frequently about the (rail) service.”
Spurney said the bus connection should help grow that traffic.