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Heartland Flyer passenger rail service may be arriving in Kansas

Billions in federal funding could be the catalyst that finally returns Kansas passenger rail service to Texas, advocates and transportation officials said at a Kansas legislative caucus on Monday.

Currently, the only Amtrak train across Kansas, the long-distance Southwest Chief between Chicago and Los Angeles, makes overnight stops in both directions in Lawrence, Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City, and Garden City.

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A state-supported short-haul Amtrak line, the Heartland Flyer, serves passengers between Fort Worth, Texas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. That line was created in 1999 to reconnect Oklahoma to the National Passenger Rail network, through Fort Worth, after Amtrak discontinued the Chicago-Houston Lone Star train in 1979.

For years, passenger rail advocates have pushed Amtrak and federal railroad officials to support expansion of the line to Wichita and Newton, the latter of which would be a connection to the Southwest Chief. But years of stagnant ridership and federal funding for Amtrak had kept the expansion at a conceptual level.

However, under the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, federal lawmakers have set aside $66 billion for improvements to passenger and freight trains over the next five years.

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Of that $66 billion, $1.8 billion was set aside to support the Corridor ID program, intended to help expand state-backed intercity passenger rail service on Amtrak lines shorter than 750 miles, such as the Heartland Flyer.

“We have an opportunity to connect that huge area of ​​the country for passenger rail and an opportunity to open up travel across this large and diverse region of millions of people,” Federal Railroad Administration executive director Michael Lestingi told the caucus. . “With all the resources afforded by the bipartisan infrastructure bill, now is the time for an ambitious vision to strengthen transportation efforts.”

Kansas well positioned to receive federal funding for Heartland Flyer passenger railroad expansion

Although FRA expects to receive significantly more applications than the funding available for the Corridor ID program, Kansas has a head start, said Cory Davis, director of multimodal transportation and innovation at the Kansas Department of Transportation.

The state previously completed a service development plan exploring expansion of the Heartland Flyer in 2011, and through a partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, officials are updating that plan for this new round of funding. stated Davis. He said KDOT will submit its application well ahead of the March deadline and that FRA officials expect to screen and notify funding recipients by the end of the year.

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If Kansas were selected for the program, the legislature would have to commit to help fund and launch expanded Heartland Flyer operations. Federal funds would pay up to 90% of net operating costs in year one, with that amount dropping to 30% by year six. Next, the hope would be that rail passenger fares and revenues could support the program.

“If this service is going to go forward, this is the opportunity to do it,” Davis said. “This is not something that will happen overnight, but there are federal resources to make it happen much more quickly.”

The study will look at the rehabilitation of other long-distance passenger rail lines in Kansas, Missouri

In addition to the Heartland Flyer expansion, Amtrak is using other portions of the $66 billion in train upgrades to expand and rebuild service across the country, said Derrick James, director of government relations for the railroad company.

On long-distance trains like the Southwest Chief, Amtrak is “refreshing” its fleet of cars, which date back to the company’s beginnings in the 1970s, with new upholstery, carpeting and other mechanical upgrades. The company will also purchase 125 new locomotives to replace the entire fleet over the next 10 years.

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Other Amtrak’s Kansas infrastructure upgrades that were not part of the $66 billion federal infrastructure bill include a $3 million upgrade to the Dodge City station platform and lighting, as well as an accessibility upgrade from $175,000 at Hutchinson Station. Topeka will also get a new platform soon, James said.

A study conducted by FRA is also examining the potential expansion and restoration of daily long-distance passenger train service, such as the National Limited line that ran from Kansas City, Missouri, to Washington, DC, between 1971 and 1979, and the River Cities train from Kansas City to New Orleans between 1984 and 1993.

In Kansas, the study will also examine the Lone Star line, the train from Chicago to Houston. Wichita, which lost its direct connection to the national passenger rail network when that train stopped service in 1979, would be a key stop on the line, as well as a new station in Arkansas City.

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Such an extension would open the route to federal support through Amtrak as a long-distance route and could increase the frequency of service to eastern Kansas cities such as Newton, Topeka and Lawrence, said Laura Kliewer, director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

“If that route were restored, even if it just went to Kansas City, it would be a long-distance route,” Kliwere said.

Rafael Garcia is an educational reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 785-289-5325. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.

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