Amtrak plans to restart daily passenger service on its Southwest Chief route across Kansas beginning May 31.
In October, Amtrak cut the line’s daily service down to three days a week because of the pandemic. But the company says new federal COVID-19 relief funding will allow it to restore daily service on the Southwest Chief and 11 more of its long distance routes over the next few months.
The Southwest Chief, the only Amtrak service in Kansas, runs from Chicago to Los Angeles and includes local stops in Kansas City, Topeka and Dodge City.
For southwestern Kansas communities like Garden City, the route provides a connection with the rest of the state and the region.
“When you live in an area like this that’s very remote,” said Lona Duvall, the president and CEO of the Finney County Economic Development Corporation, “it’s just too important that people have that freedom of movement.”
In 2018 and 2019, the Garden City station served roughly 7,000 passengers annually in a city of just under 27,000 residents. For reference, Amtrak’s Topeka station served between 8,000 and 10,000 passengers those same years in a city of more than 125,000.
“Those ridership numbers are people,” Duvall said. “They’re people who need to be in a different place for whatever reason, and we have to ensure that we have every opportunity to get them there.”
Amtrak also announced a long-term plan this week to add a new route that would connect the Southwest Chief to Oklahoma and Texas through the station in Newton, Kansas.
The line is part of Amtrak’s vision to add more than 30 new routes nationwide over the next 15 years using money from President Joseph Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan. It would also bring passenger rail service to Wichita for the first time since 1979. Biden has long been an Amtrak booster.
Duvall says that connecting Garden City with Oklahoma and Texas, places where many southwestern Kansans already have family and business connections, opens up new doors for the community.
“Obviously, rail lines only go where rail lines go,” Duvall said. “So being able to open up new markets where we can travel to and from is huge.”
Nationally, ridership on the Southwest Chief was down 43% in 2020, the largest drop of any of Amtrak’s long distance lines. But even before the pandemic, the Southwest Chief was in danger of being discontinued.
Duvall says there have been multiple instances over the past decade when Amtrak said it may have to cut service to Garden City entirely because of the steep costs of necessary updates to the rail line.
“But each time,” Duvall said, “we rallied.”
In 2018, senators from Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico reached an agreement to fund infrastructure improvements along the route with money from Amtrak and federal transportation grants.
But Duvall said the threat of possibly losing Amtrak service in Garden City never quite went away. When the company reduced service last fall, it created some anxiety in town.
“There were certainly folks who thought,” Duval said, “‘Uh oh, are they going to use this as an excuse to never come back?’”
But she says Amtrak’s recent announcement — and the possibility of an additional $80 billion in new federal money for passenger service infrastructure — means that she and other Garden Citians can feel a bit better about the future of rail in southwestern Kansas.
“We’re all breathing a big sigh of relief.”
David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.
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