Heartland Flyer operating rail costs could fall to states

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Plans to extend Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer rail service from Oklahoma to Kansas will likely require the state to share in the operating costs if it eventually becomes reality.

Amtrak officials said Tuesday that it would cost roughly $500 million for track upgrades plus an unknown amount in operating costs that still need to be worked out.

“Amtrak is committed to working together with the states to find a way to advance this service,” Amtrak President Stephen Gardner told a roundtable of media and local officials Tuesday.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Gardner said. “This is the type of service and the type of market which deserve passenger rail and it’s our job to serve the nation and to do so in ways like the ones proposed here.”

Amtrak is counting on federal money to cover cost of the track improvements between Newton and Oklahoma City, possibly from the next federal multiyear transportation bill.

Amtrak would put federal money into operating costs for a short time and then gradually shift that over to the states in the long term.

Derrick James, Amtrak’s Midwest director of government affairs, told the Kansas Passenger Rail Coalition earlier this year that the states might have to cover operating costs after three years of service.

“Amtrak is advocating the federal government help cover those initial operating expenses for the startup of a new service like this,” Gardner said.

“We’re confident the states will find this to be a good investment if we can have that federal partnership to improve the infrastructure and get the service started,” Gardner said.

Amtrak estimates the investment would generate about $1.9 billion in economic activity. It believes the route would be used by 100,000 to 200,000 riders a year.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Pete Meitzner said it was always assumed over the years that the states, or local governments along the route, would be responsible for the operating costs.

“All of our work that we’ve been doing over the years has included the realization that if there is some operating shortfall, that the communities and the states would have to step up or be obligated for it,” Meitzner said.

The proposed extension of the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Newton, Kansas is part of Amtrak’s 15-year, $75 billion plan to add 39 new rail routes and expand service on 25 others across the country.

The Heartland Flyer already runs from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth.

An extension from Oklahoma City to Newton would link to the Southwest Chief, a cross-country route that connects to Topeka, Lawrence, Kansas City and Chicago to the east and Los Angeles to the west.

The extension proposal, which has been on the drawing board for at least a decade, calls for one daily roundtrip from Oklahoma City to Newton.

Trains would stop in Wichita and Arkansas City in Kansas and in Ponca City, Perry, Guthrie and Edmond in Oklahoma.

Heartland Flyer extension

It is estimated that it would take the train about four hours and 20 minutes to make the trip, about an hour more than by car at rush hour.

The proposal also would add two more daily rounds trips – there is one now – from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Supporters believe the train would offer a better alternative to a car for transportation even if it took longer.

“It’s very much about travel, tourism and leisure as well,” said Newton City Manager Kelly McElroy.

“You don’t have to fight the rush-hour traffic. You can stop and stretch your legs at the stations along the way, you can get up and walk around, go have a bite to eat  at the dining car,” she said.

“A lot of the younger millenial generation is really looking for that experience when they travel,” she said.

How long it would take to bring the news service to Kansas is still murky.

Gardner said timing will depend on securing federal funding and the partnerships it forms with the host freight railroad – in this case BNSF – the commitment of the three states to the expansion.

“We need that commitment from Texas and Oklahoma to fund an expansion of the existing service and then we need that partnership with Kansas together with Oklahoma and Texas to extend the service,” he said.

“Our goal is to get service initiated as soon as we can,” he said.

“If we can move that extension quickly in the next couple of years, we’d like to do that,” he said.

“What I can tell you is it’s on Amtrak’s priority list. We want to move this service as soon as we can.”

Republican Sen. Carolyn McGinn of Sedgwick said she believes there’s great enthusiasm for expanding rail service in Kansas. Her district includes Newton.

She pointed to the Heartland Flyer Alliance, the Passenger Rail Coalition and the Passenger Rail Caucus in the Legislature as example of how community leaders and elected official were coming together to support the service extension.

“I am just amazed with the amount of people across the state that are elected officials that want to be part of this group,” McGinn said of the Rail Caucus.

“They’re very interested in expanding passenger rail and they want to know more about it,” she said.