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Amtrak to ride rails into Abilene

The “Iron Horse” that gave birth to Abilene in 1881 — only to be put out to pasture three decades ago — will stage a comeback, thanks to the sweeping Amtrak reorganization unveiled Monday in Washington.

If all goes according to plan, beginning in about 2002 Abilene will have passenger train service again for the first time since about 1967.

“The train is coming back home!” Nanci Liles, executive director of the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau, exclaimed excitedly.

One of the first jobs the local officials face is procuring a depot that — just like in 1881 — will be the port of embarkation for travelers.

The Texas & Pacific Railroad had a depot in downtown Abilene since it sold the first lots in what it billed as “The Future Great City of West Texas.” It constructed the present red brick structure in 1908, but five years ago gave the long-vacant and decaying building to the city to be restored.

Liles said there probably is enough room in the visitors center, housed in the old depot, to serve again as a passenger station. If the train service is delayed at all, it could coincide with her office’s planned move to the Fort Trails Center, which is due to open along the railroad tracks in 2003.

In 1998, city planning official Elizabeth Grindstaff began working with the Texas Association of Rail Passengers, which was promoting the return of passenger service. The Abilene City Council subsequently appropriated $100,000 to be used as an inducement to make sure Abilene would be one of the stops if Amtrak ever approved a route through the Big Country.

“We still have that money and we can use it for creating or rehabiliatating an office depot and for the salary of a passenger agent for up to a year,” she said. “I really don’t think we’ll have any trouble finding a place.”

Passenger service, officials noted, could also lead to express freight service.

Under the planned expansion, Texas will become one of 21 states with expanded and improved passenger train service. The expansion is part of an Amtrak plan to revitalize the passenger railway plan by providing customers with more options.

The proposal would reroute the Sunset Limited route, which goes through Alpine, Sanderson and Del Rio and move it north to more heavily populated areas including Pecos, Odessa, Big Spring, Abilene and Cleburne. It would unite Los Angeles and Dallas, and be part of a route that eventually travels north through Arkansas and Missouri to Chicago.

But Amtrak’s plan to dramatically expand or improve passenger railway service won’t necessarily mean lower prices for travelers hoping to save cash by riding the rails.

“This plan is not designed to compete head to head with airlines,” said Amtrak President George Warrington.

Still, Amtrak officials hope the plan — designed for completion by 2003 — will ignite a railway renaissance, and that more travelers will opt to take leisurely tours across the United States.

Under the plan, 11 routes will be expanded to serve additional markets and the number of trains operating weekly will be increased on three routes. Amtrak will activate 50 passenger cars and 45 locomotives.

The railway expects that the changes will cause a net gain of $65 million in revenue in 2003. The timing is no accident. Under a 1997 law, Amtrak has until the end of fiscal year 2002 to become operationally self-sufficient or face possible liquidation.

The railway currently operates a 22,000-mile passenger rail system that serves more than 500 communities in 45 states.

Board members say rather than cut services as Amtrak has done in the past, this one aims big in hopes of big payoff.

“The truth is, we cannot cut ourselves into prosperity,” said Amtrak board member John Robert Smith, the mayor of Meridian, Miss. “We’re only going to improve our bottom line by aggressively identifying new market opportunities and acting boldly to increase our market share.”

But it won’t be easy, they admit. They intend to introduce abandoned equipment to expand service, and are hoping Congress will fund a proposed $468 million increase to help them buy capital for the expansion.

“We do have a lot of heavy lifting ahead of us, and I’m not going to kid about that,” Warrington said.

President Clinton applauded Amtrak’s decision, saying “there has never been a better time to expand” the passenger railway service. He is asking Congress to increase Amtrak funding by more than 70 percent in hopes of laying the foundation for high-speed rail and helping Amtrak give more efficient service.

Schedules and fares out of Abilene have not been discussed at this point, according to Tim Geeslin of Arlington, president of the Texas Association of Rail Passengers, a non-profit group that fought for the Amtrak service. He figures a one-way trip from Abilene to Dallas will be competitive with Greyhound bus fares — about $30.

Jessica Wehrman of Scripps Howard News Service contributed to this report.

Roy A. Jones II may be contacted at 676-6737 or [email protected]

Abilene Reporter-News
Roy A. Jones II