The first passenger train arrived in Wichita in 1872. The last departed in 1979. The Santa Fe depot at the Old Cowtown Museum, in this 2017 file photo, was originally at Anness, an unincorporated community in Sedgwick County. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)
When the first passenger train to Wichita arrived the night of Thursday, May 16, 1872, it seemed the entire town had waited up to meet it. Rolling up to the wooden depot on Douglas, the steam train and its 44 occupants were met by a cowboy brass band.
Jubilation is not a strong enough word to describe the mood in the city.
“Regular through trains reached our depot yesterday,” wrote Marshall Murdock, the usually sober frontier editor, in the next day’s paper. “The bosom of our valley heaved and sot with ecstatic emotion. All is joy and many, very many, are too full for utterance. We are exhausted, bewildered and can say no more. It is enough.”
Such was the relief, as Murdock put it, of being “within the bounds of civilization.” You could board the train one day in Wichita and be in St. Louis the next, and Chicago the day after. By May 1872, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway had already crossed most of Kansas and was nearing the Colorado border. It had already reached Emporia in 1870 and Newton in 1871. It did not veer south to Wichita, but continued its westward journey, generally following the old Santa Fe Trail, which had been scouted half a century before. It took a spur line, the Wichita and Southwestern Railway Co., to bring passenger service to the city, but that line was soon absorbed by the Santa Fe.
I don’t know exactly what old mutton chopped Murdock meant when he said the Ark Valley’s bosom was “sot” — drunk with joy, perhaps? But I am reminded of the rich history of passenger rail in Kansas nearly every summer when my wife, Kim, boards the Southwest Chief in the middle of the night at Newton for points west. She’s typically bound for some location — La Junta, Colorado, or Albuquerque, New Mexico, or Las Vegas, Nevada (which requires a bus ride) — to meet me at the Western Writers of America convention, which drifts about the mountains and the plains. I will go on ahead and road trip with my New York editor, and after a week in which said editor and I alternately pledge our undying friendship and plot to kill one another, rendezvous with Kim a week or so later at whatever station is closest to the convention hotel. She alights from the train, sometimes after a day or more, suffering delays and fools, with her eyes like saucers and craving coffee and roadhouse food.
Such were the spirits too, perhaps, of the first passengers that alighted that giddy night in 1872. The depot was near the location of what is now the railway viaduct over Douglas. In 1914, Union Station — which would serve three major railways, the Santa Fe, the Frisco and the Rock Island — would be built on an impressive elevated platform overlooking downtown. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers would leave for World War I and World War II from this platform, and one can only imagine the tearful, and sometimes final, farewells.
In 1971, as passenger rail service declined nationally in favor of air travel, the federal government stepped in by founding Amtrak, a quasi-public corporation to operate passenger rail routes. Amtrak served more than 30 million passengers annually before the pandemic, and about half that currently. It depends on a combination of state and federal subsidies. In comparison, U.S. airlines carry about 2.9 million passengers every month.
Amtrak typically incurs heavy losses on its long-distance lines, such as the Southwest Chief, and received $1.8 billion in federal subsidies in the last fiscal year. Past cost-cutting measures typically have been reflected in reduced service or routes, and Amtrak service to Wichita ended early in the national passenger rail experiment.
The last Amtrak train left Union Station in Wichita on Oct. 6, 1979, bringing an end to passenger rail service that had begun in 1872. There are still great hulking steam and diesel locomotives on the elevated platform above Douglas, poised as if to pull into the station, but they’re mostly displays of the Great Plains Transportation Museum. Freight trains still rattle over the tracks on the west side of the viaduct, however. The Union Station building remains, but has been repurposed as commercial office space.
As with most things in our pandemic world, answers to our most pressing problems may be found in the past. From masks to social distancing, we have returned to what works best. For mass transportation — as most modern nations know — rail works exceedingly well. But the most important reason for Americans to again embrace passenger rail is that it’s better for the environment. With the world at a “code red” point for climate change, according to a recent United Nations report, we should be employing every strategy available to reduce our carbon emissions. Rail travel produces 84% fewer carbon emissions than driving and up to 73% fewer emissions than flying, according to Amtrak. The rail service may be using the best possible scenario here, but other sources generally agree, with a 2020 report showing, per passenger, rail has fewer CO2 emissions for trips less than 700 miles.
The problem with Amtrak in Kansas is there are only six places to board, limited to the same route the Santa Fe forged across the state in 1870-72. That’s great if you live in one of the towns with an Amtrak station and want to go to Kansas City, Missouri, or Lamar, Colorado. It’s not so good if you don’t live where the Southwest Chief stops or if you’d rather go, say, to Oklahoma City. The stations in Kansas are Topeka, Lawrence, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City, and Garden City.
Although the Southwest Chief passes through Emporia, it hasn’t stopped since 1997, when service was eliminated because the existing bus shelter style stop was insufficient. The old train depot, built in the 1880s, later burned down, and the city was uninterested in building something new. In 2017, there was community interest in bringing Amtrak back, but the cost seemed prohibitive to city officials, according to the Emporia Gazette.
Bashing Amtrak for a failure to turn a profit is a kind of sport among conservatives, and the service is often held up as an example of government inefficiency. Yet, the fact that we continue to have a national rail passenger service at all is an accomplishment, and a vital part of our infrastructure that should not just be maintained, but expanded.
The thing the Ayn Randos don’t get is that not every damned thing is transactional. There are some things, like education and safety and national passenger rail service, that contribute to the public good and which must not be treated as businesses. We have seen, over and over, how privatization poisons everything, from prisons to the DMV. “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s 1957 manifesto disguised as a novel (with passenger rail!), is not just wrong, but morally corrupt. It’s the stuff of dreaming oligarchs. It should be abundantly clear at this inflection point in history — as it was in the Great Depression — that it takes a strong central government (and yes, federal money) to meet the challenges of a hostile world. Only by sustained and coordinated effort, aimed at the public good, and not private profit, can we transcend the plagues upon us.
The bipartisan, $1 trillion infrastructure bill that recently passed the Senate would give Amtrak $66 billion, the most since the service’s founding. It would also change Amtrak’s legal mandate, from satisfying “a performance level sufficient to justify expending public money” to meeting “the intercity passenger rail needs of the United States.”
Amtrak’s plans for increased service, thanks to the prospect of the infrastructure bill, may bring passenger rail back to Wichita, via the Heartland Flyer. The Flyer currently connects Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, but a proposal calls for an extension to Wichita and Newton.
Now is the time for communities to create the infrastructure necessary to provide Amtrak stops or stations. Emporia, in particular, should reconsider the long-term benefits of providing a stop for the Southwest Chief. Not only is it the green thing to do, but it’s the practical thing to do; as home to a state university, a station would be convenient for students — and become a point of civic pride.
The deeper we go into the successive waves of the pandemic, and the greater a toll is taken on our institutions, the more important our infrastructure becomes. We have forgotten, as a nation, how much we rely on what the government provides, from schools to rail service. There will always be the myopic who complain the future is unclear, the selfish who are against anything that doesn’t enrich themselves, the ignorant who decry the inefficiency of government.
Somehow, we must find our enthusiasm again for real progress.
When passenger rail returns to Wichita, it would be fitting to meet that first Heartland Flyer with a cowboy brass band.
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