Amtrak Answers Senators But Leaves The Future Of Kansas Passenger Rail In Question
Passenger trains will keep rolling through rural communities in Kansas, for now. But Amtrak still hasn’t committed to operating the long-distance routes that connect small towns to larger cities long-term.
Earlier this year, Congress agreed to an additional $50 million to keep the Southwest Chief, which travels from Chicago to Los Angeles with stops in several small Kansas cities, running through September.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and a handful of his senate colleagues then pressed Amtrak for answers about future plans for long-distance routes. The rail service responded with a letter this week.
CEO Richard Anderson wrote that Amtrak will not alter or truncate any long-distance routes before the end of the 2019 fiscal year. But he didn’t make any promises beyond that.
Instead, the head of the federally funded rail service pushed questions back at Congress about whether to maintain current routes or make changes.
“While we strongly believe that there is a permanent place for high-quality long-distance trains in our network,” Anderson wrote, “the time to closely examine the size and nature of that role is upon us for numerous reasons.”
Amtrak is slated to submit its proposal for reauthorization later this year.
In his letter, Anderson highlighted the increased demand for services in metropolitan areas, where the majority of its ridership occurs on short-distance routes such as the Northeast Corridor.
The long-distance routes, he wrote, ate up nearly $922 million in the 2018 fiscal year — nearly half the $1.94 billion in federal support for Amtrak’s network, while accommodating a relatively small share of passenger trips, 4.5 million rides annually.
While ridership numbers have fluctuated from year to year, Anderson noted the number of long-distance passengers fell 4 % between fiscal years 2017 and 2018.
The rail service is eyeing the development of new routes to meet demand for shorter trips in areas of the country where the population is growing.
Anderson wrote that routes connecting cities and towns within 400 miles or less are the “sweet spot” for passenger rail. He identified a number of new potential corridors, including a route between Fort Worth, Texas —now a stop along the Heartland Flyer —and Newton, Kansas, which is currently a stop along the Southwest Chief.
Moran said he expects Congress to agree to continued funding for Amtrak to support current long distances routes, but that it would be a “battle.”
“I need to make sure that Amtrak, its board of directors, its management has a commitment to long-term passenger services in places in the country in which it’s not probably ever going to be profitable,” Moran said in an interview.
The senator got some of the assurances for the continued operation of the Southwest Chief he wanted from a meeting with Anderson Wednesday.
But Moran said through a spokesperson later that while the meeting was a, “step in the right direction,” it prompted further questions. The senator is keeping holds on nominees to Amtrak’s Board of Directors while he awaits more answers.
Corinne Boyer is a reporter based in Garden City for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and HPPR covering health, education and politics. Follow her @Corinne_Boyer or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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