City urging Amtrak not to make changes to train route that runs through Lawrence
In her years as a volunteer caretaker at the Santa Fe train station in Lawrence, Carey Maynard-Moody witnessed firsthand the diverse mix of people who use the train. She said they included travelers from near and far touring the country, but also patients headed to hospitals in Kansas City, Haskell Indian Nations University students headed to hometowns in the southwest, a man going home to western Kansas for a funeral.
And Maynard-Moody, who is president of Depot Redux, a local preservation group involved with a recent effort to rehabilitate the station, is worried the service is in danger. Amtrak is considering changes to the approximately 2,300-mile Southwest Chief route that runs through Lawrence, including discontinuing a portion of the route and replacing it with bus service. Maynard-Moody said she thinks even discussion of interrupting the train service is shameful.
“The population that uses that train is quite diverse, and that’s what makes that train so interesting to travel on,” Maynard-Moody said. “It’s a very interesting rolling community of people from all over the world and all walks of life.”
The Southwest Chief route runs between Chicago and Los Angeles and makes two daily stops in Lawrence. The city recently began an approximately $2 million renovation of the Santa Fe station, a one-story 1950s-era brick building at Seventh and New Jersey streets.
Amtrak is considering replacing the portion of the route between Dodge City and Albuquerque with bus service, due to the condition of the track and significant costs necessary to upgrade it, according to a statement provided to the Journal-World from Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.
The statement notes that “various service options” for the Southwest Chief came up during conversations with members of the Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico congressional delegations because Amtrak is facing “significant future costs” to upgrade the tracks on the route. The statement reads that the Southwest Chief is unique in that it is the only route where a significant section of infrastructure is owned by a host railroad, BNSF Railway, and that Amtrak is analyzing the route and figuring out what it would take to ensure that the route could continue to operate safely.
“These options will consider the long-term operating and capital costs of continuing current service over the entire route and alternate bus and rail service combinations that would ensure continued transportation service and connections to the Amtrak rail network for all communities along the route,” the statement reads.
The Journal-World asked Magliari what the cost estimate is for Amtrak to upgrade the track and whether Amtrak is considering any other potential changes or any discontinuations to the Southwest Chief route. Magliari said he did not have any information beyond the statement at this time.
If the changes are put in place, for passengers who board the train in Lawrence headed southwest, the train would only take them as far as Dodge City. If passengers want to continue beyond that, they would have to take a bus to Albuquerque, where the train service would resume.
Some local and state leaders have come out in strong opposition to the potential changes, and are instead calling for Amtrak to make the infrastructure investments necessary to maintain the route. This summer, the City of Lawrence signed a petition and sent a letter to the Kansas congressional delegation in support of maintaining the continuous train route.
Mayor Stuart Boley noted that the city is putting a lot into the station, and that he thinks interrupting the Southwest Chief route with bus service will ultimately hurt ridership.
“I think it would be really hard to sustain the route if you interrupt it and then bus people, because a bus just isn’t quite the same,” Boley said. “I think what would happen is it would hurt ridership. People don’t get on the train to ride the bus.”
The changes would also come at a time when more people nationwide are using the train. Amtrak posted record ridership, revenue and earnings for its fiscal year that ended in late 2017, according to its website. Although ridership on the Southwest Chief route specifically fell by about half a percent from 2016 to 2017, from about 365,000 to 363,000 riders, that was not the case for the Lawrence station. Here, ridership increased from about 8,500 to about 9,800, or by about 16 percent, from 2016 to 2017, according to the Amtrak website.
A bipartisan group of senators has sent a letter to Amtrak urging it to uphold its commitment to preserving the national rail network, including the Southwest Chief passenger train. The group includes both of Kansas’ senators, Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts. The letter was sent to Amtrak President and CEO Richard H. Anderson and expressed concern about Amtrak potentially suspending portions of the Southwest Chief route and urged Amtrak to use federal and state grants to upgrade the tracks.
“We recognize that capital investment is necessary to maintain the current route,” the letter states. “We are pleased that the Department of Transportation (DOT) has awarded multiple grants to replace segments of aging rail line on which Amtrak’s Southwest Chief operates and we request that Amtrak uphold its commitment to the TIGER IX grant.”
For her part, Maynard-Moody said she also thinks that the potential bus connection could be awkward and time-consuming, and as a result would discourage use of the train. She said that the station and train are an important mode of transportation and a gateway to Lawrence. She said to have the route diminished in any way, especially after the years-long campaign for the city to take over and renovate the station, would be discouraging.
The city took over ownership of the station last year so that it could use a federal grant to help fund the renovations. In addition to a complete rehabilitation of the building, which is an example of mid-century modern architecture, the renovation will make the station more accessible, bringing it in line with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard said that should the Southwest Chief route ever be reduced, discontinued or cease to stop in Lawrence, it would not affect the city’s ownership of the building. Stoddard said that the city does have a lease with Amtrak for the station, and such changes would impact the terms of Amtrak’s current participation. Stoddard said that Amtrak pays the city a portion of the building’s operating cost, which is right now equal to about $250 per month.
As for the ongoing renovation project, Stoddard said it is on schedule. She said the project should be complete in the late fall, and the city will host a community celebration at that time. She said that the plan is for the Parks and Recreation Department to manage the building, and it would likely be available to lease for events and meetings.
Boley said he’s heard a lot from folks who take the train, and he wants it to continue to be an option for residents as well as those visiting Lawrence.
“We’re really excited about the improvements to our train station. It’s going to be wonderful,” Boley said. “We want people to be riding here and making us a destination, and we want our folks to be able to take the Chief and get where they want to go.”