Amtrak's 2,256-mile passenger rail service from Chicago to Los Angeles through western Kansas has operated under one name or another since 1936, although the transcontinental line it travels on was actually built in the 1880s.
According to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief Route guide, the Southwest Chief is an indirect successor of the Santa Fe Railroad’s Super Chief, which made its maiden run in 1936.
The Super Chief, which ran between Los Angeles and Chicago, was known as the “Train of the Stars” and was famous for its gourmet meals and Hollywood celebrity clientele, setting the bar for luxury rail travel, the guide states. At the height of its popularity, the Super Chief made daily departures from both ends of the line.
Santa Fe Railroad ended its passenger operations in 1971, at which point Amtrak took over passenger rail. The Super Chief was renamed the Southwest Chief in 1984.
According to the guide, train passengers enjoy views of southern California, unique Arizona rock formations, Native American country in New Mexico, snow-capped mountain peaks in Colorado and orderly farms and fruited plains in Kansas, Missouri and Illinois.
The route also runs along the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe Trail, Raton Pass, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Sedona Red Cliffs and the Continental Divide.
The Southwest Chief’s accommodations, according to the guide, include coach seating, private sleeping quarters, a dining car, and a sightseer lounge/cafe.
Today, the Southwest Chief's stops in Kansas include Dodge City, Garden City, Hutchinson, Lawrence, Newton and Topeka.
According to Amtrak’s website, ridership in Kansas is up 26 percent over the past five years, despite being forced to travel at slower speeds due to deteriorating track conditions.
In fiscal year 2014, 49,418 people either boarded or departed from those six stops — 5,300 in Dodge City, 7,870 in Garden City, 5,312 in Hutchinson, 8,017 in Lawrence, 12,871 in Newton, and 10,048 in Topeka, down 1.5 percent from fiscal year 2013.
Last year, passengers traveled a combined 16,083,091 miles.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said 2014 ticket sales in Kansas generated $2,452,843.
In 2014, Amtrak employed 11 workers in the state and their total combined wages were $835,093.
According to the website, Amtrak spent more than $33.4 million on goods and services in Kansas.
But city managers in two of the communities along the Southwest Chief route say there are reasons other than the state's economy that make the passenger train important to Kansas.
John Deardoff, Hutchinson city manager, said the value of train travel to local citizens is often underestimated.
“During the Amtrak discussions, we had many people contacting us in our community to do what we could do to work with the coalition to make sure our Amtrak service doesn’t get diverted,” Deardoff said.
Hutchinson isn’t as reliant on the route as communities in the western part of the state, Deardoff admitted, because even if the route were diverted to BNSF’s Transcon Route, which runs south of Newton and on through the Texas Panhandle to New Mexico, Hutchinson residents still would have access to the Southwest Chief in Newton, 35 miles east.
“But at the end of the day, any time you lose that local transportation stop, it’s a hit on your community. Once it’s gone, you never get it back,” Deardoff said.
He said the Southwest Chief provides connectivity between smaller communities like Hutchinson and the rest of the country.
Matt Allen, Garden City city manager, sees that as the route’s most important attribute.
“Passenger rail, in particular, is important because it keeps rural areas in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico connected to the national transportation grid,” Allen said.
Southwest Chief trains make stops in Garden City twice daily, arriving from the east at 6:21 a.m. and later from the west at 11:17 p.m.
The Southwest Chief is equally important to La Junta, Colo., and other communities in eastern Colorado, said Rick Klein, La Junta city manager.
Klein described La Junta as a railroad town that relies on rail for everything from medical supplies to tourism.
“And for economic development, it provides jobs,” Klein said.
Residents of La Junta expressed the same sentiments about the Southwest Chief as those in Hutchinson, Klein said.
“La Junta’s city council, when this was brought up to them, asked to see what we could do to save the route because people are ditching their cars for mass transit, and we want to be a part of that future,” he said.