Archive for Monday, February 18, 2008

Train thoughts

A new passenger rail route through Lawrence is worth investigating.

February 18, 2008


It's going to take more than a few hundred miles of track to make a proposed new Amtrak route a viable travel alternative in Kansas and Oklahoma.

But depending on the availability and price of gasoline over the next decade or two, train travel may become a more attractive option for many travelers.

On Thursday, Lawrence city commissioners heard from a grass-roots organization of Oklahoma and Kansas leaders who wanted the commission's support for plans to establish new passenger rail service between Kansas City and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The "Northern Flyer" plan is to use existing track that already carries the Southwest Chief through Lawrence on its way between Chicago and Los Angeles and seek about $5 million in state funding to improve tracks between Newton and Oklahoma City to create a route that would head south to Dallas.

Proponents of the route point to an Amtrak route established in the late 1990s between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth. Original estimates projected about 25,000 passengers a year on the route, but the service now attracts about 70,000 travelers a year. The trip from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth takes about four hours and costs $50.

The proposed new route that would connect to Lawrence has a certain appeal. First, the trains on that route would go through the city at a reasonable hour instead of in the middle of the night or the very early-morning hours like the Southwest Chief. The plan would have Northern Flyer trains going through Lawrence southbound at around 8 a.m. and northbound at about 9 p.m. each day.

Unfortunately, anyone who has ridden the Southwest Chief out of Lawrence knows that those times are ONLY an estimate and that trains regularly arrive hours late. That fact feeds into a comment by Commissioner Mike Dever Thursday. "When it is reliable, there is nothing like a train," he said. "The problem is, people have gotten used to reliability. When it is not reliable, it gets overlooked very easily."

Being able to keep a reasonably reliable schedule obviously is key to attracting people to ride the train. Another important element, at least in Lawrence, is to provide a train station that meets at least minimal aesthetic and security standards. The current depot at Seventh and New Jersey does not.

In retrospect, America probably shouldn't have been so quick to give up on trains for transporting people. The proponents of the new Northern Flyer route are asking the Lawrence City Commission only for its moral support - not money, at least for now. It seems reasonable for the city to give that support and see how far the organizers can get with this interesting proposal.


Richard Heckler 10 years, 4 months ago

This past year we traveled by train from the east coast to KCMO by way of Chicago. The train was reasonably full most all the way. In fact along the way additional cars were connected. It was a fun way to travel as you see a lot of america that is not seen from the air or along the interstate. Train tickets were competitive with flying and driving.

The five hour layover in Chicago was fun. Public Transportation/bus provided a way to the American Girl Doll adventure.

The dome car was fun as well. The club and dining car was available. Beverage,food,sight seeing and conversing with others and plenty of time to read along way was cool.

Getting to the Philadelphia depot was done by commuter train. Public Transportation/bus brought a lot of commuter train passengers and is there to pick up passengers as well. The system is well thought out. Commuter train service between Topeka,Lawrence,JOCO and KCMO with bus service seems like would be a worthwhile investment.

Alia Ahmed 10 years, 4 months ago

I took the train to Galesburg, IL to attend my nephew's graduation in December. It was a great ride, saved wear and tear on my car and the cost of gasoline. I got to sleep part of the way and watch people and scenery along the way. It was great.

hawthorne 10 years, 4 months ago

The statement that scheduled "times are ONLY an estimate and that trains regularly arrive hours late" is completely unsubstantiated. In fact, the Southwest Chief has an on time arrival rate around 85%.

sourpuss 10 years, 4 months ago

Yes, but a train can carry a LOT more than 112 SUVs. It can carry 112 SUVS, a bunch of coal, and passengers to boot.

I would love to be able to take a train down to Wichita. I hate that drive with a passion and reading a book for three hours would be so much more enjoyable than having my hands stuck to a steering wheel. Safer too!

compmd 10 years, 4 months ago

"Btw, One train's carbon foot print is the same as 112 SUV's."

Let's think about this. An SUV on average weighs about 5,000 lbs. A train the size of the Southwest Chief runs on three GE P42DC engines, thus allowing for a maximum weight of 805,000 lbs. That's 161 times the weight of an SUV. And they are constantly moving people, cargo, and mail. It is also well known that diesel engines are more efficient than their gasoline counterparts. Even if Dollypawpaw's "statistic" is true and not made up, it is moot; how are the people, cargo, and mail on that train going to get from point A to point B more efficiently?

I used to ride the train a lot to get around the country. Just a couple years ago I thought Amtrak was considering shutting down the Southwest Chief.

Meatwad 10 years, 4 months ago

Why can't improvements be made to the crossings so that we don't have to hear 57 train whistles 24 hours per day? Why does it seem like no one cares about the noise?

Fred Whitehead Jr. 10 years, 4 months ago

To Meatwad:

Those locomotive horns (trains have not had "whistles" since the demise of steam locomotives) are Federally required. Engineers are required to sound horn signals at grade crossings no matter how "new and improved" they are. It is Federal law. I do not know why some folks find this objectionable. Those trains have been passing through North Lawrence since the Union Pacific built the line in the 19th century. They knew that when they bought or built there. Most folks do not even notice them. Many do not even see them, witness the many deaths by people in a hurry trying to beat the train to the crossing. Find something else to stress over, those horns are for your safety.

lounger 10 years, 4 months ago

I love the train. So lets make it enviormentally smart and it will be fab!

notajayhawk 10 years, 4 months ago

sourpuss (Anonymous) says:

"Yes, but a train can carry a LOT more than 112 SUVs."

Yes, but the Heartland Flyer currently carries about 80 people round trip daily.

notajayhawk 10 years, 4 months ago

JackRipper (Anonymous) says:

"and so you are afraid if the route is extended so it ties into more routing options that more people will use it and then whatever agenda you have could be threatened? Oh no, let's not make it more attractive all for a road or airport drop in the bucket of $6million."

As pointed out in the other thread, you seem to be the one with an "agenda," which somehow includes social security, NAFTA, and lord knows what else.

I suppose it's occurred even to you that not all of the passengers on the Flyer are taking the entire round trip from Fort Worth to OK City. As a matter of fact, 30% of riders are using it to connect to other trains. Many riders are traveling between two cities along the route. So Oklahoma and Texas are paying millions of dollars per year - plus what the seven localities spent to refurbish the train stations - for a train that at any given time might have a handful of people on it. And to you this is a good thing. But I notice you still can't explain why.

Passenger train travel does not reduce fuel use or emissions over other modes with ridership levels such as the Flyer has. It is not cheaper than other modes. It does not have the convenience of mobility and flexibility enjoyed by cars or the speed of airplanes, nor does it have the capacity or scheduling options of either. With cars and planes we have no real need for passenger trains, with trains we will always still need cars and planes. Nothing about the newer trains with futuristic technology you keep talking about (and have yet to explain how they'd be feasible, financially or otherwise) will change one bit of that. Do you have one single argument that justifies pouring money down a black hole on a mode of transportation with such limitations? And please don't say yet again that the future can be different - thus far you haven't even tried to argue that those limitations would be alleviated in any way with more modern technology.

KCKANSAN 10 years, 4 months ago

To Dollypaw. The spare time I usually end up spending is an airport waiting for my flight (at a minimum 48 minutes.) One time at KCI it took 1.5 hours to get out of the airport (landing, luggage, shuttle, car, parking fee) and then an hour home. That's 2.5 hours.

I'd rather drive a couple of blocks to downtown Lawrence, board a train and be flying at 80 MPH safely, comfortably, and economically across the Kansas prairie, or be in to dowtown Kansas City without having to park in about 42 minutes.

KCKANSAN 10 years, 4 months ago

To Notajayhawk: Heartland Flyer had 70,000 riders on it in 2007, not your estimate 29,000 (80 x 365). 29,000 was the initial projection in 1999, it actually carried around 58,000. Connect it to Kansas City and it may easily handle 100,000. Why only that many?: capacity of equipment.

The train is an intercity connector not a point to point distance transport. It's value is in safety, economy, and community enhancement. The best argument is: run this train and the State never need think about thousands of signs along the right of way, guardrails, high intensity highway lights, highway patrol, rest areas, additional state employees payrolls, insurance, pensions, sand trucks, mowing, and lots of costly traffic accidents. Kansas could have this for six million a year; that's less than 1700 yards of highway, and it lasts longer.

KCKANSAN 10 years, 4 months ago

To Notajayhawk: Even though Americans are living longer, medical conditions are not uncommon. Exotic treatments to keep us going are ever more visible. So, you ever see people dragging those oxygen cannisters around? You ever see them taking 'em on aircraft?-you won't (not allowed.) People with medical conditions sometimes need alternative forms of tranport. Intercity medical ambulances, or air ambulance service rivals defense department waste in dollars. IF insurance pays for this, then we all pay. I've seen lots of passengers use the trains who have medical needs. And the ticket price is the same: 300-500 miles, between 60 and 160 dollars. I hope you're not so lacking in compassion or oblivious that transport needs must be flxible and accommodate. $6 million a year is a bargain, even in this state.

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