Passenger Rail Kansas is a grass roots advocacy organization, dedicated to the preservation and expansion of service in Kansas and the surrounding region.
Challenge to Wichita Councilor Meitzner
August 8, 2016
President, Passenger Rail Oklahoma
In November 2010 I traveled back to Oklahoma through freezing rain following a presentation at the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. No thanks for my efforts, Wichita City Councilor Pete Meitzner, also in attendance critiqued my presentation mid-stream:
"Know your audience. It should be the Kansas-Oklahoma-Texas Corridor!" This followed my use of the term Texas-Oklahoma-Kansas (TOK) corridor, a reference to Heartland Flyer expansion.
My response was, "Where did this project start!" referencing the fact the Heartland Flyer was already running in Texas and Oklahoma.
Rumor has it in 2014 Meitzner again argued with a now defunct Wichita passenger rail club. This club pleaded with Meitzner to dedicate more than a couple thousand dollars in seed funding for a federal TIGER Grant program request. Wichita's 2014 request was for a federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study grant covering the TOK corridor. NEPA studies are required to qualify for federal transportation capital grants.
Fortunately, Garden City beat Wichita in 2014. Garden City seeded more funding for an urgent Southwest Chief Track Improvement project and thus secured the TIGER grant. The Federal Railroad Administration grant kept the Southwest Chief in operation and thus preserved a future possibility the Heartland Flyer would one day connect with the Southwest Chief in Newton.
Meitzner seems to summarily reject advocacy advice, but his recent foray shows he may be learning on his own. Meitzner was on hand in Newton Thursday when Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman disembarked from an Amtrak special for a few minutes to discuss Southwest Chief preservation and Heartland Flyer expansion. The expansion project would dramatically benefit both trains.
Meitzner will apparently attempt to bypass the lengthy federal process and simply ask Amtrak what it will take to fill a 197-mile service gap between Oklahoma City and Newton. Meitzner was quoted in the Wichita Eagle on Thursday:
"He said the city will send an application for service to Amtrak, which will then calculate how much local and/or state funding would be needed for track improvements and operational support to bring full passenger rail service to Wichita. Meitzner said Boardman’s visit to Kansas is, 'another positive step as we’re trying to close this gap.'"
We wish the councilor success. Perhaps Meitzner should compare notes with a real master negotiator: Sal Pace, Southwest Chief Commissioner from Colorado. You see, Garden City is a part of Pace's multi-state organization that also secured 2015 TIGER funding for the Southwest Chief track rehabilitation project through a City of La Junta, Colorado application.
Pace, also a Pueblo County Commissioner somehow bypassed federal requirements to garner millions in federal dollars for Southwest Chief route right-of-way improvements. Perhaps Meitzner, who apparently finds advocacy organizations distasteful, should also compare notes with Pace to identify ways around draconian Amtrak/ federal processes and reduce BNSF Railway's $156 million requirement for right of way improvements. This amount was discussed within Amtrak's 2010 Kansas Study as requested by the Kansas Department of Transportation.
The challenge is on. Can Meitzner become a master negotiator like Pace and finally expand Heartland Flyer service where so many others have failed? Will Wichita get passenger rail service before Tulsa? We have always encouraged a friendly competition between the largest city in Kansas and the second largest in Oklahoma. So how about it Pete? Are you up to the challenge?
Those in Kansas who want to encourage Councilor Meitzner should contact him at (316) 268-4331 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Amtrak Glosses over Capital Costs
July 4, 2016
Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman will be retiring next month. He and other dignataries stopped in Newton, Kansas today in celebration of Southwest Chief preservation. They also discussed the potential of extending Heartland Flyer service to Newton, Kansas for a potential 2:00 AM connection with the Southwest Chief. Amtrak representatives did not discuss costs other than to say the states would be responsible.
Boardman's staff and the BNSF Railway completed a study for a simple expansion of the Heartland Flyer 197 miles between Oklahoma City and Newton in 2010. It showed a $156 million one time capital requirement. The same study showed a whopping $479 million capital requirement to run a new train between Kansas City-Wichita-Oklahoma City-Fort Worth. Is this "very doable?"
As the President of Passenger Rail Kansas and Passenger Rail Oklahoma Evan Stair stated emphatically, "The cost of service expansion is out of range when considering available Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas funding."
As evidence, the state of Oklahoma is struggling to pay the current $3.3 million operating requirement for the existing Heartland Flyer. Amtrak's costs have risen to the point where the states of Oklahoma and Texas may seek non-Amtrak service providers.
We call upon our friends at the City of Newton and other Kansas/ Oklahoma communities to be wary of Amtrak statements. Be ready to challenge Amtrak/ BNSF Railway cost figures. Be ready to negotiate.
A master of negotiation is Pueblo County Colorado Commissioner Sal Pace. Pace successfully negotiated with Amtrak and the BNSF Railway to save the Southwest Chief. He did so by helping the cities of Garden City, Kansas and La Junta, Colorado to secure federal TIGER Grants in 2014 and 2015.
Information Regarding the 2010 Amtrak study is available at this link
Thruway Bus – Review
June 14, 2016
About the Bus. A new Thruway Bus connects the Southwest Chief, Wichita, and Heartland Flyer routes. The route operates between Newton and Oklahoma City with one intermediate stop in Wichita. We tried the new service as a part of a Las Vegas, New Mexico round trip last weekend.
To Newton. The Village Tours charter bus arrived next to the sidewalk at 100 SE EK Gaylord at 10:30 PM. We were glad to get out of the heat. We left on-time at 10:40 PM and were on-time to catch a 25 minute late train 3, the Southwest Chief at 3:10 AM. We arrived in Las Vegas, New Mexico at 12:38 PM, 30 minutes late. We were just enough late to catch lunch on the train (included with a sleeping accommodation).
To Oklahoma City. The return trip was uneventful. Train 4, the Southwest Chief was 19 minutes late into Las Vegas at 3:22 PM and 25 minutes late into Newton at 3:20 AM. You must check in with the Amtrak agent when you arrive. They want to ensure you make your bus connection. We boarded the bus for a 4:00 AM on-time departure. Everything worked smoothly from that point. The bus arrived with about an hour to spare for the on-time departure of the Heartland Flyer. Again, you can wait inside the Oklahoma City Santa Fe depot concourse or outside.
What If? Missed Connections. I asked the Village Tours driver what happens if a bus connection is missed due to a late train. This almost happened Sunday night when the Heartland Flyer arrived in Oklahoma City at 11:17 PM, 1 hour and 54 minutes late. As it turns out this is handled on a case-by-case basis. The bus can wait an additional 30 minutes. Connecting train passengers on a very late train will likely be placed on a Greyhound bus. For example, a late Southwest Chief arrival that misses the 4:30 am bus departure will be placed on Greyhound. Still, the bus can wait longer if there are no passengers connecting with the Heartland Flyer. There are too many scenarios to list here.
Bus Amenities. Here is a rundown of the 54 seat bus. The bus is positioned in Oklahoma City for the beginning of its round trip. WiFi is available. Leg room is somewhere between coach in a commercial airliner and an Amtrak coach. I am 6’0” so I could have used a bit more but the reclining seat helps. The temperature was nice and cool. If you are cold natured bring a blanket. A pillow is essential because the headrest is not quite enough. Bring something to drink in the event you get thirsty. Baggage is handled on the bus.
Waiting Area. If the heat is oppressive in Oklahoma City, walk over to the hotel catty-corner to station and wait in the lobby. I will do this next time if I cannot find a breeze. Hopefully, I do not get chased off. I am also going to see if the city will provide some fans at the waiting area until the Santa Fe depot project is complete.
Patronage. Twelve passengers were on our trip Friday to Newton and eight for the return Monday. Greater than anticipated ridership has surprised Amtrak and the carrier. Passenger Rail Kansas could have told them a long time ago, we need more than a bus, a train would make things so much better.
April 29, 2016: Know Your Audience: Be Smarter Than the Average Bear
Everyone knows the first rule of public speaking, “Know your audience.” We say, “Know what makes your audience tick!”
As fiscal stewards, legislators will only want to discuss the economic impact of passenger rail. Avoid history, nostalgia, and ‘kids need a train ride’ discussions, unless you tie the associated tourism revenues garnered from the train. Understand, we were corrected many years ago. The color of tourism money is still green.
This is why we pound the Texas Transportation Institute study, Measuring the Benefits of Intercity Passenger Rail: A Study of the Heartland Flyer Corridor, so hard. To refresh, Heartland Flyer passengers spent $17 million in Heartland Flyer communities during FY-2015 of which $1.3 was collected in local sales taxes. This is derived from a 2009 onboard TTI survey.
April 14, 2016: Amtrak OKC-Wichita-Newton Thruway Begins April 18
Click on the image to make reservations or call 1-800-USA-RAIL if you have difficulty
If you have problems making a reservation, please contact Amtrak at 1-800-USA-RAIL aka. 1-800-872-7245. Keep writing to your Kansas legislators to convert this bus to a train.
April 3, 2016: What you need to know about the Heartland Flyer extension
Following four years of hard work, Kansas advocacy leaders joined Governor Parkinson as he signed The Kansas Passenger Rail Development Act (SB409) in 2010. Newbie advocates believed Heartland Flyer expansion was just around the corner. Longer term advocates knew better.
You see, SB409 was an unfunded mandate. Squeezing any funding out of the Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas legislatures would require even more Herculean feats than passing this shell program. In their excitement, newbie advocates brushed off this uncomfortable reality. It ended their effectiveness as advocates.
Then two additional events brought the greater multi-state effort to a close.
1. Amtrak and the BNSF Railway threw cold water on the project. Their 2010 study showed a $155 million capital requirement for a Heartland Flyer expansion and an even more outrageous $479 million figure to begin a new service between Kansas City-Wichita-Oklahoma City-Fort Worth.
2. The Brownback administration created an untenable and hostile political environment. Expansion is less likely now than at any time since the Heartland Flyer began polishing the rails between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth.
Six years have passed since the multi-state effort collapsed. This is why we are still here, reborn in 2010. We have the patience. We have the skills. We have the experience to bring this initiative back to life once the political climate changes and the naysayers have left their governing/civic positions, and they will eventually be replaced. We will be ready.
The biggest challenge will be in reviving the scorched earth of corridor communities caused by newbie neglect. However, like a late winter Flint Hills firestorm, we anticipate a greener field will emerge. Once the ashes are swept away, we will be ready. Stand by and don't lose faith.
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