Despite a local push to restore Amtrak service to Emporia, it appears plans for it won’t pick up steam any time soon.
A local task force headed up by former pastor Rev. Andrew McHenry of First Congregational Church had high hopes of bringing back rail service. McHenry had presented plans for the idea to the city leaders detailing the benefits of building a station back in Emporia.
McHenry said the market research department had completed a market analysis for the proposed station in Emporia and stated based on travel demand, demographics and the destinations served by their nightly train through town, Amtrak determined the resumption of services had financial justification.
“There are so many reasons to do this in Emporia,” McHenry said. “Amtrak sent an email stating they had done the research and Emporia was ready for a stop. We had a group of local citizens and we went as far as we could go. It’s now in the hands of others. If they want this to happen, other people will need to step up.”
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told tThe Gazette previously that Emporia was eliminated as a stop by trains three and four via the Southwest Chief May 11, 1997. The Amtrak stop at the time was much like a bus shelter and was not sufficient to continue serving as the stop.
When the city showed little interest in building a new station, service ended.
On Aug. 9, 1999, the Amtrak station built in the 1880s burned and was eventually torn down. The building was in disrepair at the time of the fire and was not in suitable condition to serve as the station.
Assistant City Manager Jim Witt said the plan to bring back Amtrak wasn’t that easy.
“Before we even consider anything with Amtrak, we would have to work with the railroad to make sure they would accommodate us with Amtrak line on their system,” he said. “There is a study that has to be done that basically says we won’t interfere with freight traffic. It’s an analysis of the impact on the main line here and would have to be completed before anything else could be done.
“That study has never been started, and I was told it could cost anywhere from $25,000 - $100,000 upfront to get it done. I know it’s a big range — but I would hate to say it’s going to any cheaper or any more expensive. It’s not going to be cheap and it would take time.”
Witt said it wasn’t a matter of if the push to restore service would continue or if the project was on hold — it was a matter of dollars and cents.
“Amtrak won’t just come in here and build a station,” he said. “A year ago, before their budget cuts — there was a guideline for building and maintaining a station. Basically, the city would have to build the station and maintain it. It became an operational question. How much money are we going to put into building a station, even a platform station, which would probably cost upwards of half a million dollars?”
There are four categories of stations Amtrak requires along their track with the cheapest being the platform station, which has a canopy, some shelter and benches.
“That’s the minimum and that would cost at least half a million dollars to build it to their standards,” he said. “We would have to maintain it because they don’t do that. We could build an elaborate station with an office and waiting room and the whole bit, and it would cost even more.”
According to numbers from a study done by Amtrak in 2014, the following cities in Kansas had the following numbers of riders who took the train each day, either getting on or off:
^ Dodge City - seven
^ Garden City - 11
^ Hutchinson - seven
^ Lawrence - 11
^ Topeka - 14
^ Newton - 18
“Newton had the highest number of riders in Kansas, but the proximity to Wichita probably helped that,” Witt said. “The question becomes, what is our ridership going to be? Are we going to spend half a million to a million dollars to build and maintain a station for let’s say seven or eight people a day? Or, are people going to be willing to drive to Topeka and get on the train there?”
Witt said when the commission talked about the possibility of bringing back Amtrak a year ago, the main discussion was how the city would pay for it.
“It was a question of where do we get the money and is this a priority over our streets?” he said. “It might seem that we are missing a great opportunity, but ridership will be key. The biggest problem would be — I think if we did this, the train would have to come through Emporia around 2 or 3 a.m., and that is inconvenient for a lot of people.”
It was thought that Amtrak's long-distance routes would see large budget cuts after the Trump administration proposed cutting the federal subsidy that funds Amtrak.
“If that happens, anything to do with Amtrak would hurt Emporia’s chances of establishing a station here in the next few years,” he said. "I think with budget cuts, adding other stations would be difficult.”
Witt said talks of the possibility of restoring Amtrak service to Emporia have not been suspended totally.
“This will come up as a capital item again and the commission will make a decision,” he said. “To say we’ve killed the idea — no — it’s just a matter of dollars and cents.”