For the past 10 years, it feels like the Southwest Chief has had to turn away threat after threat.

There was needed maintenance and track upgrades to be done, and through the use of TIGER grants and a partnership with BNSF a possible reroute and shuttering of the service was averted. As that was in process, new safety equipment was needed in Kansas City.

Those threats were dealt with and averted. The future looked solid. In 2016 then CEO William Boardman went on a whistle stop tour, including stops in Newton and Dodge City, to declare that the Chief was around to stay.

"We are here to celebrate," he said while at the Newton train station in August. "We are celebrating the saving of this route."

The Amtrak president declared Dodge City as a very valuable partner in rail service during the trip.

"When we had our unfortunate incident near Cimarron, the people of Dodge City stood up and  helped us in a tremendous way," Boardman said of a derailment in April of 2016. "We can’t thank them enough for what they did and how they did it.

"It shows how important we are as far as transportation. Air travel is becoming harder and more expensive and few people like to drive long distances. Bus service is getting more and more scarce."

According to information provided by Amtrak, Dodge City averages just over 5,000 passengers a year.

The future looked good — so good a connecting bus was added to the offering to shuttle passengers to and from Oklahoma City to connect with the Heartland Flyer which operates between Texas and Oklahoma.

However, there is a new threat — and not only to the Southwest Chief.

The budget proposed by President Donald Trump could affect Newton, Dodge City — and hundreds of other communities served by Amtrak. It could lead to the shuttering of long distance routes.

"I think the threats to Amtrak's long distance service started back in 1971 when it all began," said Barth Hague, mayor of Newton and frequent Amtrak rider. "... In reality, Amtrak is our only link to a national transportation system. We have access to airports and facilities in other communities, but Newton serves a region and we also have the largest ridership in Kansas on the Southwest Chief line. It represents a piece of economic vitality of Newton."

Amtrak was established in 1971 by the Congressional Rail Passenger Service Act, which consolidated the U.S.’s existing 20 passenger railroads into one. At that time, Amtrak served 43 states with a total of 21 routes.

Today Amtrak serves more than 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces, operating more than 300 trains each day

"The budget proposal to eliminate funding for Amtrak’s long distance service could impact many of the 500 communities we serve," said Wick Moorman, current Amtrak president and CEO.  "Amtrak operates 15 long-distance trains across the nation and these routes offer the only Amtrak service in 23 of the 46 states we serve."

The proposal cuts $2.4 billion from transportation, a 13 percent reduction of last year’s funding, and includes elimination of all federal funding for Amtrak’s national network trains — including the Southwest Chief. According to

masstransit.com, Newton is one of about 220 communities nationwide that would lose all rail service. Kansas cities on the route that would lose all rail service include Dodge City, Garden City, Hutchinson, Lawrence and Topeka.

In addition, the proposal carves $499 million out of the TIGER grant program, a program that invests in passenger rail and transit projects of national significance and has invested in the Southwest Chief route in the past.

Dodge City has been a part of the TIGER grant program each of the last two years.

"The thing that I am banking on is that Congress sets the budget, not the president," Hague said. "I hope they would understand this would be a huge blow all across the country, including the midwest, where this is the only transportation link for many people."

According to Ernestor DeLaRosa, assistant to Dodge City city manager Cherise Tieben, Dodge City officials are aware of the budget proposal, but aren’t too worried yet.

"We’re aware of it, but this is the first proposal of the budget and there’s a lot of opposition to it," DeLaRosa said. "Our lobbyist, through Southwest Kansas Municipalities, believes it won’t go through like it is."

DeLaRosa said during Sen. Jerry Moran’s recent visit to Dodge City, the subject was addressed briefly.

"Cherise is getting ready to visit Washington, D.C., with other officials from southwest Kansas," DeLaRosa said. "She will be addressing all our representatives about how important Amtrak is to Dodge City."

Riders of the Southwest Chief can go as far west as California and as far east as Chicago without changing trains.

According to Amtrak's 2016 annual report, ticket sales increased by more than $12 million for fiscal year 2015 — fueled by a record 31.3 million passengers. Still, the service reported an unaudited operating loss of $227 million. That represented a reduction of $78 million over last year, and the smallest operating loss since 1973.

According to the same report, more than 364,000 people rode the Southwest Chief in 2016.

At one time, the next step for the Southwest Chief was to improve the rail lines through New Mexico and the Raton Pass. Now, that focus has shifted.

"As the budget process progresses, we look forward to working with President Trump, (Transportation) Secretary (Elaine) Chao, and Congress to ensure they understand the value of Amtrak’s long distance trains and what these proposed cuts would mean to this important part of the nation’s transportation system," Mooreman said.

 

Roger Bluhm of the Dodge City Daily Globe contributed to this article. To contact the writer of this story email cfrey@thekansan.com.