Passenger trains once were a luxurious way to go.

The route for the Southwest Chief, the train that now runs through Garden City, once was served by the Super Chief the so-called "Train of the Stars" that hauled Hollywood celebrities between Los Angeles and Chicago starting in the 1930s.

But those glory days would fade with the growing popularity of travel by air and automobile. By the 1960s, private rail service had all but stalled.

In 1970 the nation looked to get train travel back on track with a Rail Passenger Service Act that spawned Amtrak, a government-operated rail company.

It's been a roller-coaster ride ever since.

Amtrak has taken its lumps over the years due to service issues and financial woes, and was so cash-strapped earlier this decade that it barely made payroll.

Support from Washington often has been halfhearted at best. Though ridership remained strong, then-President George W. Bush even suggested derailing Amtrak for good.

Yet Amtrak has since been gaining steam.

High gas prices, congested highways and an interest in cleaner air have led more Americans to hop aboard Amtrak.

In fiscal year 2008, Amtrak enjoyed its sixth straight year of ridership and revenue growth, serving some 28.7 million passengers. While that number dropped by more than 1 million passengers in 2009 due in part to the recession, Amtrak still posted its second-highest year ever in carrying 27.2 million passengers.

And train travelers today want more options, a desire that's helped fuel a movement to expand rail systems across the nation.

Look for the Sunflower State to get on board.

Kansas Department of Transportation Secretary Deb Miller recently proposed a closer look at expanded passenger railroad service in Kansas. Miller unveiled a study by Amtrak and KDOT that detailed four possible routes for passenger rail service between Kansas City, Mo., Oklahoma City, Okla. and Fort Worth, Texas, that could lure an estimated 65,000 to 174,000 riders per year.

But with the state struggling to make ends meet, such a plan won't be on the fast track not with startup costs for a new route anywhere from $156 million to $479 million. Federal stimulus dollars could help, but competition for those transit funds is fierce.

So while it's impossible to expand now, it makes sense to at least plan for such a venture.

For those of us who enjoy boarding the train in Garden City to head east or west, the notion of more flexibility in train travel out of Kansas is appealing.

I've often taken the train to southeast Iowa and Chicago. While the ride may not be as glamorous as days gone by, Amtrak offers affordable, comfortable travel that takes about as long as driving, but without the hassle.

It's a godsend to travelers who don't own a vehicle and need reasonably-priced transportation.

Sure, the train often runs late, so it's not always the best way to get somewhere in a hurry.

Every mode of travel has shortcomings. Trains at least offer an alternative to long lines at airports and jammed highways.

To preserve and build on the rail option, Amtrak does have work to do. Like many companies in today's tough environment, it must increase revenue while controlling costs to succeed.

Expanded service is one ticket to that destination, and would be worth the investment in the near future.

E-mail Editor-publisher Dena Sattler at denas@gctelegram.com.