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New passenger rail plan moves down track in Kansas

(The following story by Mike Hall appeared on the Topeka Capital-Journal website on September 24, 2010.)

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas and Oklahoma officials already are at work on a development plan for rail passenger service between the Kansas City area and Oklahoma City, with a stop in Topeka, even though they haven't actually seen Washington's money yet.

The Federal Railroad Administration recently announced the approval of a $250,000 grant to the Kansas Department of Transportation to do the planning.

John Maddox, freight and rail program manager for KDOT, said KDOT is adding $125,000 to the federal grant and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation is adding another $125,000.

The federal share of the study will come from the $8 billion provided in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the development of high-speed rail corridors. However, the proposed Northern Flyer won't be a high-speed train in the sense of some Japanese and European passenger trains that often travel at more than 150 mph.

With assurances the federal money is coming and with the Kansas and Oklahoma money committed, KDOT has hired the engineering firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff to do the study. Maddox said that study should be complete by fall 2011.

This past spring, a preliminary feasibility study prepared by Amtrak and the BNSF Railway was made public, showing four alternatives.

Maddox said Alternatives 1 and 3 from that list were selected for further study, based on a number of meetings to get public input.

Alternative 1 would be a nighttime train connecting with the existing Amtrak Southwest Chief at Newton and running south to Oklahoma City, where a connection could be made with the existing Heartland Flyer to Fort Worth, Texas, and the rest of the Amtrak system.

Alternative 3 would be a daytime train running from Kansas City to Fort Worth.

That study indicated the start-up cost of Alternative 1 would be the least expensive of the four alternatives — $156 million. Alternative 3 would be the most expensive — $479 million.

Alternative 1 also would be the least expensive in terms of ongoing operating costs at $6 million a year. Alternative 3 would be most expensive at $14 million a year.

However, Alternative 3 would carry the most passengers — 174,000 a year — compared with 92,500 with Alternative 1.

Amtrak passenger service on the Southwest Chief now travels through Kansas only as far south as Newton. The connection between Newton and Oklahoma City represents a missing link in the nation's passenger rail service.

The Southwest Chief, running between Chicago and Los Angeles, passes through Kansas City, Lawrence, Topeka, Emporia and Newton. From there it travels west through Hutchinson and on through western Kansas, southeast Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona on its way to Los Angeles.

For Kansans, that means passenger rail isn't available from northeast Kansas to Wichita or Oklahoma City. Access to Oklahoma City would provide connection to the existing Amtrak Heartland Flyer service south through Fort Worth and on to San Antonio. At San Antonio, a passenger can connect with the coast-to-coast Sunset Limited along the southern tier of states from Los Angels on the west to Orlando, Fla., on the east.

Monday, September 27, 2010

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