Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series of stories featuring The Telegram’s top 10 news stories for 2014.
On Sept. 10, Garden City officials received word of a nearly $12.5 million federal grant that is expected to save the Amtrak Southwest Chief passenger rail route through Garden City and southwest Kansas.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced the award of a TIGER (Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery) grant toward the Southwest Chief Improvement project.
The story is No. 3 on The Telegram’s list of top news stories of the year.
“It’s a great day for Garden City. It’s a great day for southwest Kansas. It’s a great day for Kansas as a whole,” Mike King, KDOT secretary, said during a celebration ceremony at Garden City’s Amtrak depot a week after the announcement, attended by transportation, railroad and elected officials and other interested community members.
The Southwest Chief is a long-distance Amtrak passenger service that operates daily between Chicago and Los Angeles. But deteriorating track conditions along the route led the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad to consider downgrading speeds along the route and Amtrak officials to consider discontinuing passenger service along it.
A coalition of Garden City, Dodge City, Newton and Hutchinson, other Colorado communities along the route, BNSF, Amtrak and KDOT pledged $9.3 million in matching funds toward the $12.5 million grant. The four Kansas communities each agreed to provide $12,500 toward the local matching amount.
The coalition applied for $15 million from the grant program, and the award is just shy of $12.5 million. The grant and matching funds, $21.8 million, would be used to replace the worst of 54.9 miles of 158 miles of track that needs replaced or repaired between Hutchinson and Las Animas, Colo.
The Southwest Chief provides critical passenger transportation for rural communities in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. In 2011, communities in those three states began working to address the infrastructure needs of the route.
The TIGER funds represent a key component of the funding program and will be used to preserve passenger service along the route.
Improvements on the route also will have a long-term economic benefit to the state.
Rail repairs will preserve passenger train speeds along the route, and also will provide a benefit to rural rail freight customers.
Ray Lang, Amtrak senior director — national state relations for the midwest region, said in September that the grant marked a major stride to preserve Amtrak service on the Southwest Chief line to Garden City.
“Our corporate position all along has been we want to keep the Southwest Chief on the current route. We have historical relationships with the communities and the states that we wanted to preserve. It’s a wonderful train,” he said.
The grant funds will address the segment of railway most in need of immediate repair and most in danger of being downgraded. Most of the 150 miles of bolted rail was laid in the early 1940s to 1950s and is at the end of its useful life. The money will replace the worst roughly 50 miles of track along the route.
The railroad is studying locations along the line to make improvements.
“But 50 miles of rail is actually 100 miles of rail because you’ve got two rails involved,” Rich Wessler, BNSF director of passenger train operations, said. “So you’re talking about 528,000 feet of rail. That’s a lot of rail. To give you some perspective, we figure it will take one of our super gangs nearly seven months to do that work once it’s started.”
More than 700 applications for funding were received by the federal government. KDOT provided $3 million toward the grant matching funds.
Garden City Mayor Roy Cessna said the grant represents a key component of the funding solution to preserve passenger service along the route, and credited the work of people in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico who recognized the importance of passenger rail to their communities.
Cessna said the grant award would not have been possible without the support of elected representatives at the state and federal level. He thanked U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, former Sen. Bob Dole, and KDOT Secretary King for their efforts.
“It’s a great day, not only in Garden City, but also for passenger service in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico,” Cessna said in September.
The entities contributing matching funds to the project included: Amtrak; BNSF; KDOT; Dodge City; Garden City; Hutchinson; Newton; Colorado communities and counties of La Junta, Lamar, Trinidad, Bent County, Las Animas County, Otero County, Prowers County, Pueblo County, and the I-25 Coalition; the Colorado Rail Passenger Association; and the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners.