TOPEKA — About a hundred people gathered at Great Overland Station for the Kansas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Summit to talk about the state of, and future of, passenger train service in the area.
Barth Hague, former mayor and city commissioner of Newton, was the morning keynote speaker. If Amtrak can keep the Southwest Chief, and extend the Heartland Flyer, Newton would become a rail hub.
Hague spoke of the regional need to see an extension of the Heartland Flyer, and why cities along the proposed line have banded together.
“There is a real attitude of what is good for one is good for everyone,” Hague said. “… It is almost more critical for our region for Wichita to have this than it is for Newton to be a connection for the Southwest Chief.”
Hague pointed out that Wichita is one of “very few” mid-major cities not served by passenger rail.
He also spoke to the importance of preserving, and expanding, the Southwest Chief.
“It is a fight over whether our government should … serve both haves and have nots,” Hague said. “That is the fight over the Southwest Chief.”
He pointed out that for most of the communities along the route — and specifically the small cities and towns — the Southwest Chief is the only link to a public transportation system.
Hague told the group that looking at only profit and loss, Amtrak should likely cut all long-distance service.
“However, if you believe that the mission of Amtrak is to connect America and bigger and smaller communities, then long-distance trains are mission-critical,” Hague said. “ … I call on Amtrak to join us in fighting in for long distances and state-supported rail. … Join us in not running things from a spreadsheet, but be creative and ask what is possible.”
Great Overland Station was once a Union Pacific passenger rail station; it now serves as a museum as the Amtrak stop for the Southwest Chief, the only passenger train serving Kansas at this time, stops at a station elsewhere in town.
Attendees of the summit came from multiple states — including a contingent from New Mexico who rode the Southwest Chief the night before to attend the conference. Those attendees represented a portion of the line that was targeted for downgraded service by Amtrak when CEO Richard Anderson presented a plan to use bus service in portions of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico to Congress in June.
That cast shade over the Heartland Flyer, as BNSF, which owns the rail that would be used, has chosen not to progress with studies required to move the project forward.
“We got distracted (from the Heartland Flyer),” Hague said. “We were fighting for something that we should not have to fight for.”
That touched off action by six senators — three Republicans and three Democrats — from Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico that ultimately led to an announcement by Amtrak last month that the Chief would be operated with trains, not buses, for one year.
Several members of Congress — including Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) — had representatives read statements during the summit that both supported the conservation of the Southwest Chief and an extension of the Heartland Flyer.
“What we have seen here is very unique,” said Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Oklahoma and Passenger Rail Kansas. “Bipartisan is not a word you hear often today in Congress.”