Officials to get up-close view of ailing railway

1/10/2013

Locals hoping to lobby state officials about importance of Southwest Chief route.

Locals hoping to lobby state officials about importance of Southwest Chief route.

By JOHN GREEN

Special to The Telegram

Railroad officials have arranged a special train ride this week to let state and local officials see and feel firsthand the problems of deteriorating track on the route of the Southwest Chief through Kansas.

An Amtrak engine will pull specially equipped Burlington Northern cars from Topeka to La Junta, Colo., with "theater seating," allowing officials to view the track as the train passes over it, said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

Some 30 to 40 people will participate in at least part of today's trip, as the train stops in cities along the route to pick up local officials. After reaching La Junta at about 4:45 p.m., the participants will then board the Southwest Chief later that evening to return home.

Scheduled participants include vice presidents for Amtrak and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the Kansas secretary and deputy secretary of transportation, KDOT's bureau chief of transportation planning and its chief of governmental affairs.

Hutchinson City Manager John Deardoff and Hutchinson Mayor Dave Razo plan to participate, Deardoff said, joining the ride when it stops in Hutchinson shortly after 11 a.m. Officials from other stops along the route in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico have also been invited. A federal lobbyist hired by a number of cities on the route will also be there, Deardoff said.

Garden City representatives planning to board the train this afternoon include City Manager Matt Allen, Mayor David Crase, and Communications Specialist Ashley Freburg from the city, and possibly new District 123 Rep. John Doll, according to Allen.

Allen said the goal of the trip is to allow communities along the route to make state transportation and railroad officials aware of the desire to keep that section of rail.

"The passenger rail service that goes through western Kansas is important to the state's economy and our local economies," Allen said.

The railroad has excluded media from the ride.

The issue

The passenger train has had to slow its speeds while passing through much of the western part of the state because of the track condition. The ends of the steel rails are starting to sag because of age, setting up a rocking motion in the train if it passes over too fast.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe owns the track, but maintains the rail only to a level required for 30- to 40-mph freight traffic. Under its contract with BNSF, Amtrak is required to fund any maintenance or improvements for higher speeds and, starting in 2016, Amtrak will be required to begin paying the full cost of maintaining the route.

Officials with Amtrak and BNSF have asked the three states to commit a combined $100 million over the next decade to improve the tracks and also split $10 million a year in annual operating subsidies between the states, Amtrak and BNSF Railroad to maintain the route — or about $2 million each.

Transportation officials from the three states, in a written response last August to the proposal, indicated that state funding isn't available.

Amtrak has warned, however, that without a commitment by the end of 2014 to help make the necessary repairs and maintain the route, it will reroute the Southwest Chief through Oklahoma and Texas — via Wichita.

When asked about the funding situation, Garden City Manager Allen said it will be important for all parties to continue talking until a solution is found.

"We'd like to see all parties at the table to identify the scope and priority of improvements that need to be made, instead of the sort of lump sum numbers that have been thrown around to get a little more detailed on what's most critical, what's the cost to repair it," Allen said.

"It's part of our effort to educate state and local officials about the challenges we face," Amtrak's Magliari said.

The ride should give officials "a better understanding of what's needed to keep service on the route" as dialogue between state and railroad officials continues, said Lindsey Douglas, KDOT chief of governmental affairs.

"I'm excited," Douglas said. "It will give us a new level of detail we haven't had as far as exactly what the improvements are and to get an explanation firsthand who will benefit."

The train will depart Topeka at 8 a.m. Deardoff said they'll arrive back in Hutchinson about 2 a.m. and participants from the capital will get home about 5 a.m. Friday.

Another track

Also getting a renewed push in advance of the legislative session is a proposal for a new Heartland Flyer route connecting Kansas City to Fort Worth. The route would follow the Southwest Chief to Newton, then head south through Wichita to Oklahoma City, where it would connect with an existing route south.

Wichita City Council member Pete Meitzner has become an active advocate for the proposed route as a boost to tourism in Wichita, visiting with officials in Oklahoma and getting other Wichitans, including the local chamber, on board to support the proposal.

Amtrak conducted an initial study on the proposal in 2010, and the state oversaw a more detailed service development study in 2011, identifying the costs of several alternative services.

The latter detailed study found that adding the service would provide direct benefits nearly equal to its expected costs.

Lawmakers last year, however, failed to fund any additional steps in the process for securing the route and declined to pursue federal dollars designated for rail improvements.

The next step in the process is an extensive environmental study, which would cost Kansas an estimated $3 million and Oklahoma about $2.3 million, officials previously estimated.

"We are in continuing discussions with Oklahoma and Texas about, not only an extension, but the new service route as well," KDOT's Douglas said. "We'll continue to work with these folks."

While the state has designated no money for the study, the ongoing discussions "are keeping the issue on the table and not letting it go away," Douglas said.

"Then we're in a good position (to be competitive) if federal funding becomes available for rail," she said.

Capital costs necessary to implement the nighttime service are estimated at $132.5 million, including $87.5 million for new or upgraded infrastructure. The study estimates cost for a new daytime service at $438.5 million, including $245.5 million for track improvements and purchasing two new train sets.

Notably, the study estimates that an annual operating subsidy would also be required for the nighttime service of $4.4 million. That's on top of the current $4.48 million annual subsidy now shared by Texas and Oklahoma. A required subsidy for daytime service on the route is estimated at $10 million a year.

Telegram reporter Scott Aust contributed to this story.

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