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Amtrak Heartland Flyer Would Link KC-Ok. City

An Amtrak study on a passenger rail link that would connect Oklahoma City and Kansas City’s Union Station is still on track and half way home.

The study is looking at extending the Heartland Flyer which goes between Fort Worth, Texas, and Oklahoma City, to Newton, Kan. Newton is north of Wichita but on the east-west Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline. The BNSF mainline is also the route used by the Southwest Chief passenger train which runs between Chicago and Los Angeles through Kansas City.

“It certainly makes a lot of sense to look at connecting Oklahoma City and the Southwest Chief,” said Ron Kaufman, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

KDOT has contributed $200,000 to the study. Kaufman recently authored an update on rail passenger travel in Kansas including the Heartland Flyer study.

“There’s a lot of interest in it,” he said.

Amtrak has said the study should be done by the end of the year, he said. It would be handy to have the study in hand by November, he said.

“We would certainly want the time to be able to look over the study and prepare our recommendations to the 2010 Legislature,” Kaufman said.

The most likely route for the extension would use BNSF tracks between Oklahoma City and Newton. The study would examine the rails, how much money it would take to update and maintain the rail network and how much it would cost to operate the passenger trains.

Before KDOT makes any recommendations to legislators, the agency needs to know the costs because it’s virtually certain that the state would have to subsidize the route, Kaufman said.

“We know there will be state subsidies,” he said. “We need to know how much that would be.”

Legislators would have the final say on subsidies, he said.

However, legislators have expressed strong interest in the proposed link, he said.

The Kansas Senate passed a “concurrent resolution” and the Kansas House drafted but didn’t act on its own concurrent resolution that urged KDOT to seek economic stimulus money to expand passenger rail service and to include passenger rail in any new transportation plans.

Although the legislators endorsed the proposal, they didn’t appropriate any money for it. Without the money, KDOT can’t apply for grants that would have the effect of committing the state to provide subsidies for passenger rail service, he said.

In the meantime, KDOT plans to apply for $10 million in federal economic stimulus grants to upgrade the highway-rail crossing-signal timing between Newton and the state line. Upgrading the timing signals would allow passenger trains to travel at speeds of 79 miles an hour on the track. Currently, the signal timing along the route is set for slower freight trains. Upgrading the signals will be essential for crossing safety if the track is to be used for passenger trains, according to Kaufman.

The economic stimulus grants don’t require the states to put up matching money and they don’t require a statewide or passenger rail plan, he said.

The state needs to have a passenger rail plan to be able to apply for other federal passenger rail grants.

KDOT will begin updating its state rail plan in July, Kaufman said. The state rail plan will include a section on passenger rail and the Amtrak study is likely to be incorporated in it, he said.

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