BNSF Railway Company announced its 2017 capital expenditure plan — and there is good news for Newton and other Kansas communities served by the freight railway company that extends beyond the company itself.
The company plans to spend $125 million in Kansas, most of it on the Lajunta Subdivision. That means renovations to tracks from Emporia west to Topeka, Newton and on to Garden City.
“We will be replacing railroad ties, putting in new rails in some places and some new ballast,” said spokesman Andy Williams.
The investment will affect more than BNSF — the lines targeted for repair and improvement are in use by Amtrak maintaining a portion of the Southwest Chief. The future of the route was in limbo for years, as deterioration of tracks owned by BNSF needed repair for Amtrak to continue serving the route.
A series of grants assisted in repairing the lines in other states, which led to Amtrak CEO William Boardman to visit Newton in 2016 to declare the Chief had been saved.
“There have been grants throughout other places in the Lajunta Subdvision,” Williams told the Kansan.
BNSF announced work to the Lajunta, along with work to lines between Wellington and Emporia and the expansion of a new auto storage area in Kansas City as part of a multi-state, $3.4 billion, project overall. The larger maintenance program will include approximately 20,000 miles of track surfacing and/or undercutting work and the replacement of about 600 miles of rail and nearly 3 million rail ties.
“Each year, our capital plan ensures that we meet growing demands while continuing to operate a safe and reliable rail network.” said Kansas Division Manager Matthew Garland. “That strategy, along with the outstanding efforts of our employees, resulted in the lowest number of derailments in company history last year.”
The work is another step in maintaining the Southwest Chief service. In April of 2016, Amtrak added a bus service to connect the Southwest Chief to the Heartland Flyer, shuttling passengers between Newton and Oklahoma City. The bus connection represents the first connection between Amtrak and Wichita since 1979, when the Lone Star line was discontinued. The closure of the Lone Star Line, and the subsequent addition of the Heartland Flyer in 1999, created a gap in service that Amtrak officials said could be filled with a bus service.
The addition of the bus line led Amtrak to add service hours to the Newton ticketing office, which is now open seven days a week.
That, coupled with significant investments in the infrastructure of the Chief, not only preserved the line but has Amtrak considering future expansion for Newton - the busiest rail station in the state of Kansas. According to Amtrak, there are more than 13,000 "alightings" (passengers on and off) for the Southwest Chief in Newton annually. In 2015, there were 13,010 alightings in Newton, and 46,673 in the state of Kansas.