By ROD ZOOK
HUTCHINSON, Kan. — As Amtrak continues to push for what it sees as the biggest opportunity to expand service in its 50 years of existence, a meeting was held Tuesday with local officials, Sen. Jerry Moran and Amtrak leadership about extending the Heartland Flyer route from Oklahoma City to Newton. Under the proposal, Amtrak would expand service from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, Texas, three times per day while offering the one train per day to Newton.
“What’s been inspiring to us at Amtrak is the support and interest that exists across the country to expand our service, particularly service such as the Heartland Flyer,” Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said. “We face a series of challenges today. There’s a global climate crisis, increased congestion on our roads and driving time and time in the air. Our country needs a transportation system that offers frequent, reliable and a sustainable alternative to driving and flying.”
One of those attending the meeting was Sen. Jerry Moran, who has been a longtime proponent of Amtrak. He says the route is important not only for cities like Wichita, but for the Southwest Chief, which serves Kansas.
“The investment extending the Heartland Flyer would be invaluable to Kansans,” Moran said. “Also invaluable to the Southwest Chief with its stop in Newton and what a difference that will make in the ridership of that long-distance route.”
One local leader who has been pushing hard for Amtrak expansion is current Newton City Manager Kelly McElroy, who echoed Moran's comments.
“Some pre-pandemic numbers. In 2019, the Southwest Chief for the entire line served approximately 340,000 customers,” McElroy said. “That’s about 2% more than in 2018.”
McElroy says Amtrak's claims of increasing passenger service by as much as 200,000 passengers per year would be a big lift to Newton and the Chief. He says the city would be happy to accommodate them.
“This additional 100,000 . . . 200,000 riders is a very significant number,” McElroy said. “We have the ability to service those folks as they interchange in Newton. We would definitely need to add some community amenities, but we are poised and prepared for that kind of ridership.”
Like most expansion plans, Amtrak would ask cities and states that the expansion would serve to help with funding needs to start and keep trains running, according to Amtrak President Stephen Gardner.
“Obviously those are conversations we’ll need to have with the states moving forward,” Gardner said. “Right now, what we’re declaring is that this is part of our vision and with the federal partnership for the capital investments necessary . . . we would spend time talking to states about increasing, as needed, some support to cover the operating expenses.”
Gardner says the expansion and the benefits to the communities that gain Amtrak service would far outweigh the costs.
“We anticipate major economic benefits from this service,” Gardner said. “Both the capital investments necessary to make the service happen, and then the ongoing value of the service itself. We’re confident that the states will find this to be a good investment.” While Kansas and cities along the Southwest Chief have helped fund efforts to keep the Southwest Chief on its current route over the past five years, they do not directly subsidize the route. Texas and Oklahoma do provide financial assistance to the Flyer in its current form.
No timeline for the expansion was given, but all eyes are certainly on federal funding as to whether the Heartland Flyer would expand. Cities would likely have to come up with funds to accommodate passengers such as stations, or waiting areas, along with service at some stations. The cities between Newton and Oklahoma City have not had rail passenger service since 1979.