In the News

Chief set to return to seven day service

Newton Kansan | Chad Frey

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) was in Newton March 26 to make an announcement he was excited about — The Amtrak Southwest Chief is about to return to seven-day-a-week service.

The move is the result of federal aid sent to Amtrak as part of a $1.9 billion COVID relief package passed earlier this year — a plan he did not vote for.

"I don't want to take credit for something I did not vote for, but the good news is that the Southwest Chief will return to seven day service," Moran said.

That change is anticipated for May 31. The Chief will operate on the same schedule as in the past, meaning a stop in Newton between 2 and 3 a.m.

Moran has been an advocate for the Chief, and long distance rail, for several years — leading the charge to avoid a proposed "bus bridge" in 2018 on the route several years ago when the idea of stopping the train in Garden City westbound and Albuquerque, New Mexico, east bound while providing a bus service between the two cities.

In 2020 Amtrak reduced nearly all long-distance trains to three days a week after COVID-19 led to a system-wide drop in ridership.

After the reduction in service began in October of 2020, the Southwest Chief left Chicago on Monday, Thursday and Saturday and Los Angeles on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Currently the Southwest Chief serves Lawrence, Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City in Kansas. Of those stations, only Newton hosts an attendant.

Newton is the 10th busiest station on the route and the most-used passenger station in Kansas. In addition to the Southwest Chief train, Amtrak also operates a charter bus service to connect Newton to the Heartland Flyer route operating between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas.

According to a memo to staff from Amtrak and posted to social media, all but one long-distance train in the Amtrak network was be cut to three times a week in October of 2020.

Amtrak changed its booking system on Aug. 17 and issued an update to service on its website the same day.

The railroad also issued a “white paper” stating that the railroad would evaluate each route starting in January of 2021 based on public health concerns, future demand and current ridership to try and restore service.

The Southwest Chief, which operates between Chicago and Los Angeles stops at more than 30 stations on the route.

“Before the pandemic, 4.6 million of our 32 million annual passengers traveled on Amtrak’s Long Distance routes,” Amtrak wrote in the white paper. “COVID-19 has changed a lot, at times causing our total ridership to drop by more than 95 percent from (fiscal year) 2019 levels.”

Friday Moran also received an update from Sen. Carolyn McGinn on efforts to extend the Heartland Flyer to Newton, and possibly Kansas City, from Oklahoma City. Extending the rail service north would connect the Southwest Chief with a train that serves Oklahoma and Texas.

McGinn said a state caucus has been formed, and members of the Kansas Legislature have been meeting with local government officials about the plan — with the desire to have an organized group that can respond if there are federal infrastructure funds made available that can assist with passenger rail.