By Adam Strunk
Nearly 40 years ago, rail passenger service stopped moving North and South out of Wichita.
Amtrak now wants to reopen a line. And that decision will put Newton smack dab in the path of economic development.
That was the message of Ray Lang who works in communications and government affairs with the passenger rail service. In recent years the company has been exploring connecting its Heartland Flier and Southwest Chief by rail. The connection would take passenger service through Wichita and end the connector in Newton.
“Newton is so important to this,” Lang said. “Either we would crew trains out of Newton or overnight in Newton. There would also be some sort of servicing of the trains.”
That would mean either more jobs or more people spending the night and spending money on a regular basis. That would mean opening cities like San Antonio, Dallas and Oklahoma City to Newton residents for train travel. That would mean increased ridership going through the Newton Station.
Now, it is Lang’s job to say that. He was riding on an Amtrak train Friday traveling through Oklahoma and Kansas to help build up publicity and educate people along the way for a possible line expansion. The trip represented an acceleration in long time efforts to make the idea a reality.
That acceleration has local leaders excited about the possibilities.
“It’s a huge deal,” Mayor Barth Hague, a long time advocate of rail service said. “It’s a huge deal for Newton and Wichita.”
Such a connection has been a long time dream of Hague, who’s father worked for the railroad and who often frequents passenger trains.
County Commissioner Chip Westfall noted that the route through Arkansas City, Wichita and Newton that would connect the cities to Lawrence and Kansas City also has particular interest to Amtrak because colleges lead to increased ridership.
Allen Wedel of Bethel college said that the addition of such a line would be great for the school as well as its students many of whom come from Oklahoma and Texas.
“Just think of what this would mean for our Bethel College Students,” he said.
All the talk about reopening a train line is good, but talk doesn’t make it happen. Dollars do.
Lang said Amtrak is serious about the line and will undertake a revenue study in the near future to see how much an expansion would cost and what sort of revenues the service would take in.
Amtrak has already taken steps in that direction launching a bus rout to connect Oklahoma City and the Heartland Flyer line with the Southwest Chief.
Lang said the bus is averaging about 22 riders a trip, with its high mark at 45 riders.
Hague said that the bus has seen increased ridership each month since it launched and that’s a good sign.
“The volume and majority of riders are coming from between Oklahoma City and Newton,” he said. “If you want to call that bus an experiment so far the experiment is working.”
Lang said eventually, the state of Kansas would be asked to help pay for the service, making up the difference between Amtrak revenue’s and cost.
Oklahoma and Texas have already ponied up for rail service and Lang said 19 states in the country have entered into similar agreements with Amtrak.
That might be a tall order with a currently cash strapped state legislature.
There had also recently been worries that Amtrak would see budget cuts due to a federal budget submitted by Donald Trump that suggested cuts to Amtrak services.
Hague said now the feeling with the company is that the presidents budget will be subject to significant revisions and changes if congress would ever pass that.
Lang wouldn’t say what an exact estimate of opening such a line would cost. Amtrak would have to negotiate with Burlington Northern Santa Fe which owns the line. It would also have to install signal upgrades and do work at stations along the way.
He said another step forward would be the formation in four to six weeks of a committee made up of leaders and supporters along the proposed line to drum up support with residents as well as legislators for such an expansion.
When the publicity train pulled into Newton at 1 p.m. Friday there were more than a few supporters of extended rail service already assembled.
Residents cheered and waved enjoying a festive atmosphere on a Friday afternoon.
Brothers Antonio and Celio Sandate were standing on the platform waving the American Flag, a Jayhawk Flag and a Mexican Flag to greet the train. Both were excited about the possibility of service to Wichita and the South returning to Newton.
The brothers said the railroad was part of their heritage with their father working on it in the ’40s and ’50s.
“We have one of the greatest stations along the line,” Antonio said. “I used to ride the train down to Wichita and go to the movies,” Antonio said who added he couldn’t wait to ride it again.
If that ever happens will depend on the decisions made by Amtrak, BNSF and the state of Kansas. But Amtrak officials made their message known with their stop Friday. They want to keep the train moving forward.