KANSAS AMTRAK / Train provides alternative to those done with the hassle of air travel

Jennifer Jacob took her first Amtrak ride in 2012 ? and even though it was to meet up with a friend who resides in Lawrence for a family crisis emergency road trip, she had a great experience.

?The ride was good,? the Newton resident said. ?I had never been on a train before, so I was nervous but excited. I had no issues. I would definitely ride it again. The prices were very reasonable.?

She does have a piece of advice to offer others riding the train: ?I wasn?t on it very long, so I don?t have much advice to give, other than wear comfy clothes. There?s no need to dress up when you?re traveling at 3 a.m. Most people are sleeping anyway.?

There is nothing like a train ride. When the two-story locomotive pulls into the Newton station in the wee early hours of the morning, not much vehicle traffic is around, but there?s no mistaking the romantic rumbling of the passenger train. Sleepy passengers with suitcases head out to the train in all kinds of weather, where an Amtrak employee yells, ?All aboard.?

People hug loved ones while others board the metal vehicle with not much fanfare. There?s tears; there?s laughing; there?s yawning.

Amtrak barrels through Newton twice a night around 3 a.m. or so ? well, usually at night unless they?re running behind. One train heads east while the other travels west. Both are the Southwest Chief. One is Train 3, and the other is Train 4. The Southwest Chief goes from Chicago to Los Angeles, and from Los Angeles to Chicago. Stop?ping points in Kansas (or very near Kansas), in addition to Newton, include Garden City, Dodge City, Hutchinson, Topeka, Lawrence and Kansas City.

One North Newton resident, Marathana Prothro, was happy with the decision she and her husband made to take the Southwest Chief to Flagstaff, Ariz., to see the Grand Canyon in 2007.

?That was an amazing trip,? she said. ?Sure, you have to get up way before the crack of dawn to catch the train in Newton, but I think that adds to the mysterious novelty that comes with taking the train.?

There are several reasons Prothro listed for her riding the train. For one, a friend of hers told her, ?There?s no better way to travel than taking the train.? So, Prothro said she thought she?d give it a try.

?The price point was much preferable to booking a flight out of Wichita,? she said. ?The thing that kept me loving the train travel, though, is the entire experience. You meet people. You take your time. You see the country from an entirely different perspective than driving on the interstate or flying over in a regional jet. My favorite experience happens in the dining car. You get seated with people you don?t know, and share and listen to stories in ways that our society typically doesn?t provide opportunities for.?

She stated another reason.

?For me, taking the train is about this romantic, Americana experience that ties into adventure and really slowing down and connecting with other people,? she said. ?I can?t wait to take our 3-year-old son on his first train trip. We don?t have it planned, yet. But I know he?ll be just as enamored with it as I am.?

It?s been seven years since Prothro last rode the train, and in her previous job, she had the opportunity to ride the train for work, as her job took her to Albuquerque, N.M., and northern Indiana. The train made this a convenient and affordable way to travel.

Prothro advised potential riders to splurge on a roomette, if it?s financially feasible.

?If you consider the price of a hotel room and all your meals, which are included in the ticket price for the sleeper car, it really is worth it,? she said.

Another area resident, Christine Crouse-Dick of Newton, has taken the train to Kansas City and on to Herrmann, Mo., for a weekend get-away, as well as to Chicago to attend professional conferences. Her first trip was in 2004, and she also likes riding the rails.

?I love taking the train,? she said. ?It is peaceful for me. I enjoy seeing parts of towns and cities I otherwise would not experience if I were to be in a car or on a bus. Every time I?ve taken the train, I?ve walked my rolling suitcase on the cobblestone streets of Newton proper in the middle of the night ? such great memories to and from the train station in the middle of the night.?

Many more people agree the train is a great way to travel. In Fiscal Year 2014, the total station usage in Kansas was 49,418, according to a fact sheet on Amtrak.com. This number includes boardings and alightings (getting off the train). In Newton alone, there were 12,871 alightings and boardings, which was the most out of any station in Kansas. This is not a surprise with Newton?s long railroad history.

Having an Amtrak stop benefits Newton, as it brings economic connectivity to town and the rest of the system, said Marc Magliari, Amtrak spokesman. Many thousands of people board the Southwest Chief in Newton, connecting to the rest of the country, and Newton is the gateway to riders in Wichita, he said.

Barbara Burns, director of community advancement for the city of Newton, said she thinks Amtrak is important to Newton and the rest of the state because it connects to larger cities, as it?s another form of interstate travel.

?People who love the train, love the train,? she said. ?It?s an experience.?

Melody Spurney, coordinator of the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Newton, offered another positive about having an Amtrak stop in Newton.

?Having such easy access to it here ? I think is a benefit to Newton,? she said. ?I think it?s a nostalgic way to travel. People are interested in traveling that way.?

Spurney said her office receives calls from passengers and potential passengers wanting to know about transportation to and from motels to the train station, as well as parking. (The station was modeled after Shake?speare?s home at Stratford-upon-Avon, England, Burns said.) The Newton Police Department wants passengers to use the 24-hour parking lot near the Newton Post Office if they?re going on the train, Spurney said.

Newton gets passengers from towns that aren?t served by Amtrak, such as Wichita and Salina, Spurney added.

In light of Newton being a stopping point for the passenger train, Spurney set up a contest on Facebook where she puts an Amtrak train cardboard cutout in various places around town every week, takes a photo and puts the photo of the cutout on the CVB FB page on Mondays, where people can guess where the train is that week. Names of people with correct answers are put into a hat with a name drawn, and one person is declared the winner that week. Winners get a coffee mug and something else, such as Amtrak gear or a nominal gift card.

The contest started in February, and people wishing to enter can visit www.facebook.com/visitnewtonks. Spurney also posts the winner?s name and something about the cutout?s location that week on the CVB Facebook page.

?The fact that Newton is an Amtrak community was how we set up the contest,? Spurney said. It?s purpose is to raise general awareness of Amtrak in Newton.

Spurney approached Amtrak to see if they had anything like a train model or a photo she could use to promote Amtrak in the community, and Spurney was given the cutout.

?Amtrak was very supportive and helpful of the contest effort,? Spurney said.

The contest has been received well with the community.

?Some weeks, we?ve had like 200 comments,? she said.

And Amtrak, like the contest, also has been well received in the state and in Newton.

In 2013, Amtrak and Kansas Department of Transportation representatives brought a special passenger train from Chicago through Kansas, picking up city officials, like Burns and then-Mayor Jim Nickel. Officials experienced the dining car and sleeper rooms en route to La Junta, Colo.

?It let us experience rail passenger,? Burns said. ?We were encouraged to walk from car to car. It brought back very fond memories for me.? Burns? father worked for Santa Fe and Amtrak as a brakeman/conductor.

Guests also were led to an observation car with stadium seating, where they learned about the rail conditions between Newton and La Junta. Burns said that during the trip, she could tell which parts of the rails had been improved and which had not. Improving the rails, which are between 60-80 years old, is not just a comfort issue, though; it?s a safety issue, she said.

Replacing the tracks is costly.

?The investment is greater, but once it?s there, it?s secured for a very long time,? Burns said, adding highways need to be repaired much more often.

The cost to ?restore 54.9 miles of the 158 miles of bolted rail sections between Hutchinson, Kan., and Las Animas, Colo., to Class IV condition? is about $24 million, a Garden City information sheet stated. In 2014, the cities of Newton, Hutchin?son, Dodge City and Garden City, as well as some in New Mexico and Colorado, joined forces in writing a Trans?portation Investment Gen?Recovery Grant (TIGER) proposal for $14,969,963, which was awarded that same year.

?Because all three states collaborated, we were funded,? Burns said.

The grant will be added to $9.3 million in private, local and state funds, according to information from Garden City. The city of Newton put $15,000 into the pot, and other entities, like Dodge City, La Junta, Colo., Amtrak, BNSF and KDOT, also will contribute.

?The rehabilitation effort will preserve the passenger service of Amtrak?s South?west Chief long-distance train through central Kansas and southeastern Colorado,? the Garden City information sheet stated. ?A segment of the route through Kansas and eastern Colorado is on a BNSF Railway subdivision where freight traffic levels no longer justify the investment required to support passenger train speeds. The condition of the route has been deteriorating and will erode to the point where operation of the train on the route is not feasible.?

Amtrak wants to run its trains faster, Burns said, but they are forced to go slower because of the condition of the tracks. They would prefer to travel around 88 mph but have to go slower than some cars on highways ? at 55-60 mph.

The Newton City Com?mis?sion supported lobbying our legislators in Washing?ton, D.C., on the importance of the passenger rail to the economic future of Kansas. The lobbyist worked in Sen. Robert Dole?s law office.

?Senator Dole and our elected officials were very supportive,? Burns said.

However, Burns is not sure about the status of this rail repair project. It is an expensive undertaking.

At one point, there had been discussion about enhancing the passenger train route going north-south from Fort Worth, Texas, to Oklahoma City to Newton and then Chicago. Burns was on the board for the Northern Flyer Alliance, which was promoting this route. The missing piece is track between Oklahoma City and Newton.

Recently, Amtrak presented the city of Newton four signs which read, ?An Amtrak-served community.? Those signs are on North Main Street in Newton and on Interstate 135 at West First for the northbound and southbound lanes to see.

?Newton can be proud of being an Amtrak-serving community,? Burns said. ?The railroad is in our Newton DNA. If rail passenger nationally can gain a full head of steam, we will see the return of the energy and vitality so many people in Newton remember fondly.?

by Wendy Nugent

The Edge


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