Wichita Still Pushing to Get Amtrak Back

City officials in Wichita, Kansas, really want Amtrak to come back.

Getting intercity rail passenger service is No. 2 on a list of the city’s transportation priorities for the Kansas legislature this year.

City spokesman Ken Evan said the chances of seeing Amtrak return to the sunflower state’s largest city is 50-50. “We’ve had years where it’s been much lower,” he said.

However, officials in Segwick County are not as enthusiastic. Getting Amtrak back isn’t on their list of transportation priorities.

County Commission Chairman David Dennis is reluctant to support a return of intercity rail service until he can see how much it will cost.

“Until I get the answers to what the cost is and the benefit, I can’t say that I’m supportive or against it,” Dennis said.

The campaign to return Amtrak to Wichita has been a long and fruitless one.

The city was a stop for Amtrak’s Chicago-Houston Lone Star before that train was discontinued in early October 1979 as part of a massive Amtrak restructuring triggered by a desire by Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation to curtail federal funding for Amtrak.

Among the ideas floated for restoring service to Wichita are extending the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Kansas City, Missouri, via Wichita.

There was even some thought given to rerouting the Southwest Chief via Wichita and a more southerly route via Amarillo, Texas.

That idea is unlikely although the Chief’s route through western Kansas, southeastern Colorado and northern New Mexico via Raton Pass is on shaky ground due to Amtrak’s desire to cease operating over it between Dodge City, Kansas, and Albuquerque.

City officials noted federal dollars might be available to fund service via Wichita and state finances are healthier.

More than likely if service to Wichita is to materialize, it would involve extending the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City northward to Kansas City or a connection with the Southwest Chief at Newton, Kansas.

Seeking to push the Segwick County commissions in favor of supporting the return of Amtrak is long-time train advocate Pete Meitzner.

He recently won a seat on the County Commission and takes office in January.

Meitzner said that even though cost estimates have been requested and have yet to be released, he expects the initial outlay to be minimal.

He said federal funds are available for restoring service where it used to exist and he hopes to convince the state to apply. If the state agrees, service to Wichita could be launched in one to two years.

That assumes that the trains would have a top speed of 60 mph instead of 79 mph with the former being the fastest that BNSF allows freight trains to travel on its tracks through Wichita.

It also assumes the service would use equipment now assigned to the Heartland Flyer, which sits overnight in Oklahoma City after arriving from Fort Worth, Texas.

Amtrak operated a demonstration run last year on the route.

How much influence that Meitzner might have on his fellow commissioners remains to be seen.

Commissioner Jim Howell said Meitzner’s presence on the board may lead the county to rethink seeking Amtrak.

“I would not be surprised if we would have new discussions and possibly change our priorities a little bit, and do what we can to chase down our previous comments and straighten things back up again if we have any opportunity to do so,” he said.

Two members of the Kansas legislature also expressed optimism that funding service to Wichita might at least be discussed.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, the new Republican leader in House, and Rep. Tom Sawyer, the Democratic leader, said they’d heard from constituents who want train service in Wichita.

The House Transportation Committee is expected to create a 10-year transportation plan and matching funds for federal funding of Amtrak service might be part of it.

In the meantime, an Amtrak Thruway bus route connects Wichita with the Southwest Chief at Newton.

Last year 4,900 passengers rode the Thruway route that serves Wichita with 1,700 of them boarding there.

The bus originates in Oklahoma City. “We’ve been really happy with it,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

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