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.