Passenger rail service between Lawrence, western Kansas at risk

If you are among those who would prefer to sleep while someone else drives you to western Kansas, you may soon have one less option.

Amtrak officials are amping up the volume on concerns that passenger rail service to western Kansas may be eliminated by 2016, if new maintenance money isn’t found for a key section of track that runs between Newton and Albuquerque, N.M.

“We can’t maintain the current speeds without significant work being done,” said Marc Magliari, a spokesman with Amtrak.

Amtrak is seeking about $10 million per year in maintenance work for the 700-mile stretch of track, and a one-time $100 million worth of capital improvements, which could be spread out over multiple years. Amtrak is proposing the costs be split between Amtrak, the track’s owner Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and the state governments of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.

If funding doesn’t materialize by 2016, Magliari said the route of the Southwest Chief will be dramatically changed. Lawrence is expected to remain on the route in either case, but service to Hutchinson, Garden City, Dodge City and multiple communities in Colorado and New Mexico would be lost.

Instead, the Southwest Chief would be rerouted at Newton and would go through Wichita; Amarillo, Texas; and other points. The re-route would provide a new option for Lawrence travelers to get to Wichita, but Magliari said Amtrak is concerned about losing service to western Kansas.

“Our numbers tell us that students and faculty of KU and Haskell use that train quite a bit to connect to western Kansas,” Magliari said. “We believe the train is on the right route.”

Leaders of Amtrak, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and the Kansas Department of Transportation are going on an old-fashioned whistle stop tour of sorts on Friday to tout the need for more funding. The group will make stops in Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City to discuss the railway issues with local leaders. The president and CEO of Amtrak, the executive chairman of BNSF and the secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation are all expected to make the trip.

Magliari said the train will make a brief stop in Lawrence about 7:30 a.m., where railway leaders will thank the community for its efforts to restore the BNSF depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets. Depot Redux, the nonprofit group that has been working to restore the depot, is planning to hold a “flash mob” at the station to welcome the train. Flash mob participants are asked to arrive at the station about 7:15 a.m.

The Lawrence depot serves about 7,500 Amtrak passengers a year, and the number has been growing, said Carey Maynard-Moody, a leader with Depot Redux.