At a time when travelers across the nation should be looking at options to private automobiles, Kansas is in danger of losing a big chunk of its last remaining passenger rail service.
A meeting in Garden City last week brought Amtrak officials together with local government officials from Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico to talk about the future of the Southwest Chief, which currently runs through Lawrence and across western Kansas. The meeting amounted to an early warning that if money isn’t found to maintain the track currently used by the Southwest Chief west of Newton, Amtrak may be forced to change its route, turning south near Newton and bypassing all of western Kansas, including stops in Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City.
The problem is that Amtrak operates on tracks owned and maintained by the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway. The BNSF already has shifted most of its freight traffic to the southern route and maintains the Kansas tracks used by Amtrak only enough to allow freight trains to travel 30 to 40 mph. The poor condition of the 60-year-old tracks means that Amtrak also has to slow its trains way down to safely travel between Hutchinson and Garden City.
The BNSF’s contract to maintain the tracks runs through 2016. After that, Amtrak likely will be required to pick up that responsibility. Even though that deadline is nearly four years away, an Amtrak representative told those who attended the Garden City meeting that they should start thinking now about how future maintenance might be funded. He estimated it will cost about $100 million to upgrade the Kansas tracks and another $10 million per year to maintain the tracks to accommodate Amtrak trains at desired speed. Without some funding from state or local governments, Amtrak may be forced to move its route south onto BNSF-maintained tracks.
That would be too bad for Kansas. It not only would eliminate the state’s last remaining passenger rail line west of Wichita, but could endanger hopes of creating a Kansas link to Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer which runs south through Oklahoma City to Dallas. Even if the Southwest Chief maintains its route through eastern Kansas cities, it raises doubts that could affect projects such as the city’s proposed takeover of the historic Santa Fe Depot in east Lawrence.
Another Amtrak official told the Garden City meeting that Amtrak ridership has increased in nine out of the last 10 years. It would be nice if revenues grew enough that Amtrak could afford to make its own investment to maintain the Kansas tracks, but that seems unlikely. It won’t be easy for Kansas to pick up the maintenance tab, but, as Amtrak officials advised, state officials need to start now looking at funding that will preserve passenger rail service across Kansas.