Group Aims To Expand Amtrak Route From Oklahoma to KC

Saturday, February 17th 2007, 3:10 pm
By: News On 6

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) _ A group wants to bring Amtrak back to the state's largest city, which hasn't had passenger service since 1979.

The Northern Flyer Alliance wants to speed up expansion of the Heartland Flyer route north from Oklahoma City to Wichita, Newton and Kansas City, Mo.

``I haven't found one person yet who says that's a crazy idea,'' said Autumn Heithaus, the alliance's executive director.

Anyone wanting to catch an Amtrak train from the Wichita area must drive 20 miles north to Newton, and there is no service running south.

That doesn't sit well with 81-year-old Rosemary Terry, a member of the newly formed Northern Flyer Alliance. She would like to visit her daughter in Fort Worth, Texas, which is served by the Heartland Flyer route.

``I know a lot of people, if they could get on a train and not worry about getting hit by a truck on a highway, they could go somewhere,'' she said.

The alliance has started a letter-writing campaign to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, hoping to enlist her in the push for returning rail service to Wichita.

``A city of this size that doesn't have any rail, any other way to get out but an airplane, is absolutely ridiculous,'' Terry said.

Lloyd Stagner, an alliance member from Newton, is a former railroad employee and the author of several books about trains. Rail travel, he said, is a logical response to fluctuating gasoline costs and airline security issues.

``I think passenger rail has a big future. With the city of Wichita giving subsidies to airlines, I think Amtrak would be in line, too,'' Stagner said.

Wichita's Union Station has been converted into an office building where Cox Communications maintains its state headquarters. But Cox is moving to another location, with the move to be completed in 2008.

After that, Cox's real estate firm will put the station on the market, said Jay Allbaugh, the company's vice president for government and public affairs.

The expansion move is also getting support from Evan Stair of Norman, Okla., director of the Amtrak Extension Coalition.

``This train should've operated through Wichita from day one,'' he said.

Oklahoma transportation officials, too, would like to see the route extended into Kansas.

``It only stands to reason if it were connected to the north, the ridership would obviously be enhanced,'' said Joe Kyle, manager of the rail programs division for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

Texas and Oklahoma split the annual cost _ approximately $4 million _ of running the Heartland Flyer. Kansas would have to provide state funds for any expansion to occur, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said, and the initiative would have to come from the transportation departments of Kansas and Oklahoma.

But John Maddox, rail affairs program manager for the Kansas Department of Transportation, said the department has no state money available for capital improvements to rail service.

Kansas law also prohibits the use of state money to pay for passenger rail operations, Maddox said.

A KDOT study in 2000 found that capital costs for development of the corridor from Kansas City to Wichita would be $194 million, Maddox said, with another $149 million to improve the corridor from Wichita to Oklahoma City.

That doesn't take in the cost of station improvements, cars and locomotives, Maddox said.

However, Stair said those numbers were exaggerated. He estimated that Kansas would pay $5.39 million in annual operating costs, with another $2.79 million in startup costs.

Despite the hurdles, Heithaus said she is optimistic that passenger service will be back in Wichita.

``It's going to be a lot of hard work,'' she said. ``But I still have a lot of heart and a lot of passion this is going to work out.''