Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak in Kansas’

Amtrak Rejects Reinstating Topeka Ticket Agent

May 14, 2019

Amtrak has turned thumbs down on a request by the City of Topeka, Kansas, to reinstate a ticket agent at the city’s station.

City Manager Brent Trout was not surprised by that response but said the reasoning given wasn’t what he expected.

In his March 7 letter to Amtrak, Trout cited a clause in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019 that directed Amtrak “to provide a station agent in each Amtrak station that had a ticket agent in the fiscal year 2018.”

But Amtrak’s definition of a station agent varied greatly from that of Trout. As Amtrak sees it, having a caretaker who opens and closes and the station and keeps it clean enables the passenger carrier to comply with the law.

Trout had in mind someone who sells tickets and helps passengers board and disembark.

Topeka has that type of ticket agent until last year when the position was eliminated in a cost-cutting move that led to the removal of ticket agents in several cities across the country.

At the time, Amtrak said ticket offices in those cities sold too few tickets to justify the expense of maintaining them. The carrier said most passengers now make reservations online and either print their own tickets or present them to the conductor on a smart phone.

“It was a little surprising,” Trout said. “I thought the (legislative) language was clear, but they (Amtrak) view different positions in different ways. … We were hopeful that we could get that back.”

Topeka is one of six stops in Kansas served by the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief. Garden City also lost its ticket agent at about the same time the Topeka ticket office closed.

Amtrak said a caretaker in Topeka is on duty between midnight and 2 a.m. and between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Those times correspond to the scheduled arrival times of the Chief.

In his response letter to Trout, Stephen J. Gardner, Amtrak’s senior executive vice president of commercial, marketing and strategy, acknowledged that the caretaker does not sell tickets, but does provide basic information to passengers, including including how to place baggage tags on luggage.

Gardner said the Topeka agent had sold less than one ticket a day and that less than 3 percent of ticket sales came from station sales involving cash.

Trout conceded that ticket sales may have been low at the Topeka station, but access to a ticket agent was an opportunity for people who do not have a computer.

Amtrak figures show Topeka to be the second busiest station in the state with 10,084 passengers in fiscal year 2017, the most recent ridership figures available.

Newton was the busiest with 15,828 passengers. Others included Lawrence (9,834)), Hutchinson (4,294), Garden City (6,966) and Dodge City (5,208). Only Newton still has an Amtrak ticket agent.

In Garden City, the city placed computer terminals at the city-owned Amtrak station so passengers could buy tickets.

“In the global look at things, we saw an opportunity to talk to Amtrak about improved services at our station,” said City Manager Matt Allen said. “What we have set up now is a step in the right direction.”

Allen said city employees maintain and open and close the station. They do not, though, sell Amtrak tickets.

Wichita Still Pushing to Get Amtrak Back

December 15, 2018

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.

Legislators Want to Discuss S.W. Chief With Anderson

June 2, 2018

Legislators representing states served by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief are asking the passenger carrier to provide its $3 million in matching funds to be used to repair the tracks used by the train.

Their response came after Amtrak wrote to public officials saying it would not providing the matching funds until a comprehensive funding plan is in place to finish rebuilding the tracks on the route.

Governmental units in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico have sought and landed money in recent years from the U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER grant program that is being used to rebuild the BNSF route.

Amtrak and BNSF agreed to provide matching funds. The latest issue arose after Colfax County, New Mexico, obtained TIGER funds that Amtrak has thus far failed to match.

The money obtained by Colfax County is to be used to renovate the tracks in New Mexico.

“The Southwest Chief is vital to the economic well-being of our communities,” said a letter sent to Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson by the elected officials. “In many cases, the line is the only affordable alternative transportation option to the highways for our citizens, and is an important link to public and private services along the route for rural residents, including the elderly and disabled.”

The letter was signed by U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrick (D-New Mexico), Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), Michael F. Bennet (D-Colorado), Cory Gardner (R-Colorado), Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas. Also signing were U.S. Reps. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico), Ben Ray Lujan (D-New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-New Mexico, Jared Polis (D-Colorado) and Lynn Jenkins (R-Kansas)

The letter contends that Amtrak earlier agreed to provide matching funding for the route rebuilding.

The legislators are also seeking a meeting with Anderson to discuss issues related to the Chief.

“The lack of transparency by Amtrak management about its changing position on the Southwest Chief is troubling, particularly for a government-sponsored enterprise entrusted with an important public transportation mission,” the letter said. “We request Amtrak take the lead in developing cooperate plans to ensure the Southwest Chief’s successful operation, including seeking funds from the various federal grant programs established to address these specific issues.”

The dispute was further cast into a spotlight when former Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman issued a statement accusing Amtrak of taking actions to justify discontinue the train, which operates between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Boardman said the Chief would be the first of other long-distance discontinues to come.

Amtrak Matching Funds for Rebuild of S.W. Chief Route Coming With Terms and Conditions

April 5, 2018

Amtrak has agreed to contribute matching funds toward the project to upgrade the route of the Southwest Chief, but at a price it has never demanded before.

The passenger carrier will only agree to help fund the track rebuilding if the states promoting the project as well as BNSF submit a comprehensive plan for the remainder of the infrastructure investments and associated costs to rebuild the route in New Mexico.

Amtrak has also demanded that “prior to the obligation of grant funds for this project, the County of Colfax, N.M., BNSF, and Amtrak will enter into appropriate agreements setting forth our roles and responsibilities with respect to the project, with terms acceptable to Amtrak.”

Colfax County is the lead government entity that is seeking a federal TIGER grant to help fund rebuilding of the route of the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

More than two years ago BNSF said it would no longer maintain the route of the Chief in portions of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico to 79 mph speeds because freight traffic on the route is light.

Former Amtrak President Joe Boardman said in an interview with Trains magazine that Amtrak’s current approach to matching the funds being put up by government entities to rebuild the route of the Southwest Chief differs from the company’s behavior when he was its head.

Amtrak’s demands for terms that it alone must approve was submitted with the Colfax County TIGER grant application.

Amtrak Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer William N. Feidt said the passenger carrier “strongly supports” the application as a continuation of improvements and that Amtrak will offer $3 million if the grant application is successful.

Two government entities have been awarded TIGER grants in recent years to pay to upgrade the route of the Chief in Kansas and Colorado.

Those grants to the city of Garden City, Kansas, and La Junta, Colorado, were matched by funds from BNSF, the states involved, Amtrak and other cities with an interest in seeing the Southwest Chief remain on its current route.

Amtrak is the primary user of the route between Hutchinson, Kansas, and a junction west of Lamy, New Mexico.

In his interview with Trains, Boardman said he and former BNSF Chairman Matt Rose agreed that completion of the track work would not hinge on knowing where all the money would eventually come from.

“It was logical that we would do this in pieces,” Boardman said. “Yes, we couldn’t complete everything with the piece of money [from the first grant], but we couldn’t spend that money on construction right away anyway. We had strong commitments from all of the cities along the way. For me, that was enough to just keep going [with subsequent grants] and now the communities have an expectation that the project will continue.”

Colfax County is seeking more than $17.5 million for the track work. Entities other than the federal government are projected to contribute $9.19 million toward the project, including $3 million from BNSF and $1 million apiece from the states of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico as well as pledges from 17 communities in the three states

The American Association of Private Railcar Owners has pledged $10,000 while the Colorado Rail Passengers Association has agreed to contribute $1,000.

The most recent TIGER grant awarded to the project was $16 million, but that and other pledges funds leaves the $26.7 million project more than $1.5 million short.

It has not been determined if, as a result, officials will curtail the scope of the track rebuilding or seek larger matching contributions.

BNSF has reportedly “asked for a final Federal Railway Administration-approved budget in order to determine how much scope we need to reduce.”

The work to be done includes tie and rail replacement, rebuilding the roadbed at the Devils Throne fill area west of Lamy, and signal system improvements in New Mexico.

“One of the things I learned working on these kinds of things, is that if you fail to move when you have an opportunity to move, you’re probably going to fail to get this done,” Boardman told Trains.

Wichita Eyes Grant to Lure Back Amtrak

March 28, 2018

The city of Wichita, Kansas, is seeking a federal grant to be used to lure Amtrak back.

City officials , including the the mayor, city council, and others, traveled to Washington to meet with Trump Administration officials and other government agencies to discuss infrastructure need and other issues.

While in the capitol, they also met with Amtrak executives to discuss the proposal to return Amtrak to Wichita, possibly by extending the Heartland Flyer there from Oklahoma City.

Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell said the city may qualify for a Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements or CRISI grant.

He said the grant could cover most costs of getting Amtrak to Wichita.

Amtrak has studied extending the Flyer to Kansas City via Wichita but has no firm plans to do so.

Wichita has been off the Amtrak map since October 1979 when the Chicago-Houston Lone Star was discontinued during a massive route restructuring.

Kansas Seeks Study of Heartland Flyer Extension

January 30, 2018

The Kansas Department of Transportation has asked Amtrak to undertake a study of extending the Heartland Flyer to Wichita and Newton, Kansas.

The Flyer, which is funded by the states of Oklahoma and Texas, currently operates between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas.

The study would review projected costs and ridership numbers. At Newton, the Flyer would connect with Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

It would not be the first study of extending the Heartland Flyer. An Amtrak inspection train operated over the route to Kansas City last year.

Between 1971 and 1979, Amtrak’s Chicago-Houston Lone Star used the route that is being eyed for the Flyer extension.

The Lone Star was discontinued amid a route restructuring prompted by congressional desire to reduce Amtrak funding.

Kansas and Amtrak officials are said to be optimistic about establishing the extension. Amtrak noted that a connecting bus service to Wichita that began in 2016 has had good ridership.

State officials see the Flyer extension as having potential to boost tourism and provide transportation to students attending Wichita State University, Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma.

The latter, located in Norman, is already a stop on the Heartland Flyer route.

Restoration of Lawrence Station Moves Ahead

December 8, 2017

Restoration of a former Santa Fe passenger station used by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief in Lawrence, Kansas, is moving forward.

The project stalled after the Kansas Department of Transportation received no bids for the work.

However, the Lawrence city council recently approved a resolution directing KDOT to award the restoration work bid to First Construction of Lawrence in the amount of about $1.8 million.

Another $240,000 has been spent on engineering work for the project to restore the station, which was built in the 1950s.

A KDOT grant will pay for 80 percent of the restoration costs while the city will pay up to $409,000 for its share of the project.

That is far more than the $24,000 the city expected to pay when the restoration work was proposed in 2014

A memo written by city staff indicated that the possible sale of historic tax credits and reimbursement from Amtrak for upgrades required by the Americans with Disabilities Act will make up the difference.

BNSF owns the property on which the one-story brick station is located, but has donated the station to the city.

The depot is an example of mid-century modern architecture. The restoration work is expected to be finished in 2018.

Wichita Still Wants Amtrak Back

October 14, 2017

Promoters of bringing Amtrak back to Wichita, Kansas, held a conference this week to discuss how to bring that about.

A Wichita City council member expressed optimism that service could be reinstated, but didn’t say when that would be.

“The market of the youth and even retired people, they’re driving these kind of decisions and say this is how we keep our city, it’s the 48th largest city, we need to be investing in that or we don’t keep up with the rest of the trends that are going on in the world today,” said Pete Meitzner.

The plan is to have Amtrak use the former Wichita Union Station.

Amtrak’s Chicago-Houston Lone Star served Wichita until early October 1979 when the train was discontinued in a massive route restructuring.

Hearing Set on Heartland Flyer Extension

August 24, 2017

The Oklahoma legislature will conduct a hearing on Sept. 6 to discuss extending the Heartland Flyer into Kansas.

The train currently operates between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, but a movement is underway to extend operation of the train to Newton, Kansas, where it could connect with Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

There has also been discussion about extending the Flyer to Kansas City, Missouri.

Newton Mayor Barth Hague and Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell plan to travel to the hearing to testify in support of the extension. Wichita has been without Amtrak service since October 1979.

Oklahoma is looking to build on an earlier study done by the state of Kansas.

The Heartland Flyer is funded primarily by Oklahoma with some funding coming from the state of Texas.

“Right now that train is funded by Texas and Oklahoma, so we certainly cannot do anything without working with them, and they want to work on it,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

The move to extend the Heartland Flyer into Kansas dates back to at least 2008.

A 2012 study conducted by the Kansas Department of Transportation estimated the cost of improvements needed for extension to Newton route would be $87.5 million.

Extending the Flyer to Kansas City would cost about $245.5 million.

“There will be need for an effort to put some good, positive advocacy pressure on our state to jump forward to provide funding,” Hague said.

Hague noted that the 2012 cost estimates have been changed several times.

“What Amtrak and BNSF have figured out is there might be a way to extend the line without ($100 million) in track improvements,” Hague said.

Amtrak ran an inspection train on the route on June 9.

Crowds Turn Out for Amtrak Inspection Train

June 13, 2017

Crowds turned out in the communities visited last week by an Amtrak inspection train that was examining a possible expansion route of the Heartland Flyer.

The train operated from Oklahoma City to Kansas City and made stops in Guthrie, Perry, and Ponca City in Oklahoma; and Arkansas City, Wichita, Newton, Emporia, and Topeka in Kansas.

The consist of the train included P40 locomotive No. 822; heritage sleeper Pacific Bend, No. 10020, originally a 10-6 sleeper built by Budd for Union Pacific in 1950; Viewliner sleeper New River, No. 62043; dome-lounge Ocean View, No. 10031, built for Great Northern by Budd in 1955; and inspection car American View, No. 10004, built by Budd as one of the Viewliner prototypes in 1994.

The route covered by the train hosted Amtrak’s Chicago-Houston Lone Star until early October 1979.

Amtrak is studying extending the Heartland Flyer to Newton or to Kansas City. At Newton, the Flyer would connect with the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Last year a Thruway bus service began between Newton and Oklahoma City.