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.”
In April, Amtrak added a bus service to connect the Southwest Chief to the Heartland Flyer, shuttling passengers between Newton and 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 Amtrak officials said could be filled with a bus service.
The addition of the bus line led Amtrak to add service hours to the Newton ticketing office, which is now open seven days a week.
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. According to Amtrak, there are more than 13,000 “alightings” (passengers on and off) for the Southwest Chief in Newton annually. In 2015 there were 13,010 alighting in Newton, and 46,673 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.
In addition to dealing with deteriorating rail lines, in 2015 Amtrak and the Kansas City Terminal reached an initial agreement to install new safety technology, called positive train control, averting a possible shut down of the train. According to the American Railroad Association, positive train control is an electronic system designed to automatically stop a train before certain types of accidents occur.
According to a railroad safety report by Amtrak in December of 2012, the railroad is trying to respond to a federal mandate to install positive train control systems across all tracks. Had those improvements not been made, Amtrak would have either rerouted or discontinue the Southwest Chief.
In 2016 the Newton City Commission passed a resolution to provide a pledge— one to support a grant match with Garden City, Dodge City, Hutchinson and other members of the Southwest Chief Rural Partnership for the La Junta, Colorado, application for Federal Department of Transportation TIGER VIII funding.
Newton agreed to contribute $12,500.
“We are grateful to the local communites,” Boardman said. “Long distance trains is the mission of Amtrak. It is the delivery of service to the community that is often flown over. Amtrak cares about that, cared about that when it was founded in 1971 and still cares about that.”
The Southwest Chief provides passenger transportation for rural communities in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. In 2011, communities in those three states began working to address the infrastructure needs of 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, and Waldo, New Mexico. Additionally, BNSF has agreed to maintain the track at a maximum speed of 79 miles per hour for Amtrak and 60 miles per hour for freight trains where the bolted rail has been replaced.
Organizations which supported and assisted with the grant application included Amtrak; BNSF; the Kansas Department of Transportation; the City of Dodge City; the City of Garden City; the City of Hutchinson; the City of Newton; the City of La Junta, Colorado; the City of Lamar, Colorado; the City of Trinidad, Colorado; Bent County, Colorado; Las Animas County, Colorado; Otero County, Colorado; Prowers County, Colorado; Pueblo County, Colorado; the I-25 Coalition; the Colorado Rail Passenger Association; and the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners.
“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.”
Amtrak estimates the train injects more than $150,000 in tourism revenue into the Newton economy.
Boardman, along with several others, was riding a special train Thursday from Topeka to La Junta, Colorado. 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.
According to an Amtrak fact sheet, The present route of the Southwest Chief in New Mexico via Lamy, Las Vegas, and Raton, could be altered if sufficient capital funding is not found to modernize the line. Amtrak has been working with the states and communities that would be affected and has informed them of the situation.
“We have good support there,” Boardman told The Kansan. “(They) want to work with us to find improvments over the Raton Pass and that is the next thing that we need to do.”
Expansion to Wichita and the Flyer is part of the plan, however there is no timeframe for that expansion. The bus line started in April is a part of that move.
For rail expansion 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. “Between Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and a state supported service I think it is doable. … (The states) have to support the service, with their own money and ridership of course.”