City commission discusses Amtrak summit

9/18/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

Around 100 people representing Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Amtrak and the National Association of Railroad Passengers attended last Saturday's meeting in Pueblo, Colo., to discuss efforts to save the Southwest Chief rail service.

Garden City Commissioner Janet Doll, who along with her husband, state Rep. John Doll, helped represent Kansas at the meeting, provided a report during Monday's city commission meeting about what went on in Pueblo.

"One thing that was very clear from this meeting is that all three states have to work together. If one state, for whatever reason, can't make it work, then we all lose," Janet Doll said.

Deteriorating track conditions in south-central and southwest Kansas have forced the Southwest Chief, which goes through the state on its run between Chicago and Los Angeles, to slow in Kansas. Amtrak has indicated it will reroute the Southwest Chief when its contract with BNSF Railway expires in 2015 if the line isn't upgraded.

Doll said the line from Newton to Albuquerque, N.M., is in poor shape, causing passenger trains to reduce speed for safety. At a certain point, the speed will drop so low the railroad won't be able to operate it effectively.

There has been talk that Amtrak might move the passenger route south to the transcontinental freight route in Oklahoma, an already busy route that is expected to increase by 30 to 80 trains per day, Doll said.

"Keeping the Southwest Chief where it is or moving the passenger train route to Oklahoma are both costly endeavors," she said. "As a result, there's a chance that Amtrak service from Chicago to Los Angeles may end."

Amtrak is looking to make a decision about the route some time in 2014.

Garden City's Amtrak depot is used frequently, according to Amtrak numbers.

In fiscal year 2012, a total of 7,887 people either boarded or got off the Southwest Chief at Garden City, the third highest passenger numbers of the state's six stations, according to Amtrak's service and ridership numbers provided to the city.

Overall, in fiscal 2012, total Kansas station usage was 49,498, a 3.3 percent increase over 2011. The boarding/alighting numbers for the six Kansas Amtrak stations included: Newton, 14,131; Topeka, 10,459; Garden City, 7,887; Lawrence, 6,608; Hutchinson, 5,239; and Dodge City, 5,174.

Doll said Amtrak has proposed splitting the cost of an estimated $200 million in track repairs five ways between the three states, Amtrak and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. Each would pay $4 million per year over a 10-year period.

"If we spend $4 million per year, it's a worthwhile investment because Amtrak is reinvesting in our state," Doll said, pointing to numbers indicating Amtrak spent $30 million in goods and services in Kansas in 2012, and $21 million in 2011. The company also paid wages to Kansas workers of $852,000 in 2012 and $930,000 in 2011.

Kansas has 244 miles of track. BNSF maintains the track at a minimum level of 30 mph for freight trains, but the track standard for passenger service is to be able to carry trains at 79 mph, Doll said.

Mayor Dan Fankhauser said he noticed a lot of new rail ties being installed along the track near Dodge City and wondered if some improvements already have begun.

Steve Cottrell, city engineer, said the activity is part of the BNSF capital program to preserve the line's ability to maintain freight traffic at 30 mph, not something intended to improve passenger rail speed.

"The rail that's out here is extremely old and basically needs to be replaced with welded rail to be able to provide the speeds necessary for Amtrak. That would also improve freight traffic," Cottrell said. "That retying is just to maintain the status quo."

Cottrell added that with the additional number of trains coming to Garden City to serve various industrial users, along with potential growth in local industry, it's possible track around Garden City will get some attention by the railroad in the future.

In other business Tuesday, the commission approved buying an acre of property at 2321 N. Eighth St. for future park land from Frances Dean Gillan for $105,000, with half to be paid at closing on Oct. 15 and the remainder paid by Jan. 15, 2014.

Randy Grisell, city attorney, said the city was approached by the property owner offering to sell it to the city.

"Years ago, the city inquired as to whether this owner, as well as some other owners, were interested in selling their properties, and we finally got a response," Grisell said.

Currently, a house on the property is being rented and the lease will continue with the current tenant and the city will take over maintenance of the property.

"It's a little different role for the city, but I don't think the future plans are to maintain a house there," Grisell said.

Alan Geier, parks superintendent, said at some point in the future the property will be turned into a park. Another park, Finnup Scout Park, is located on the south end of the block.

"This is a future prospect. If it did not eventually turn into park land, it can be broken up into four lots. But we fully intend for this to eventually become park land," Geier said.

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