Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A Kansas town tries to keep the train coming through

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 10:35 PM EDT, Sun May 13, 2012
The train station in Garden City Kansas where Amtrak's Southwest Chief arrives twice a day, stands before a bank of grain elevators.
The train station in Garden City Kansas where Amtrak's Southwest Chief arrives twice a day, stands before a bank of grain elevators.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene says the Amtrak station is a beloved fixture of Garden City, Kansas
  • He says the Chicago-to-L.A. Southwest Chief connects town to the nation
  • He says townfolk are seeking alternatives to moving the tracks
  • Greene: If the station closes, the world will go on, but town will lose symbol of place in U.S.

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen." He appears on "CNN Newsroom" Sundays during the 5 p.m. (ET) hour.

(CNN) -- For well over a century the world has come to call on Garden City, Kansas, every day of the year.

"I know the town would miss it," said Garden City's mayor, David Crase. "I hope it doesn't come to that."

He was talking about the Southwest Chief, the big Amtrak passenger train that runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Garden City, with a population of around 28,000, has had its own daily passenger railroad service since the town was founded in rural southwest Kansas in the late 1800s. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe sent its glamorous trains through Kansas on their way east and west. Garden City built its train station right downtown.

To have the station there made the town part of the grand and glorious thread that, railroad-stop-by-railroad-stop, connected the still-young nation, the thread that made the country seem, and feel, cohesive and whole.

When Amtrak took over the passenger railroads in the early 1970s, many cities around the country -- some much larger than Garden City -- lost train service, and the need for their stations. But Garden City never did.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

Twice each day, Sundays and holidays included, the Southwest Chief pulls to a full stop downtown to let passengers get off and let passengers get on. Residents who live nearby can literally stroll over to the train station, hop on the Southwest Chief, and step off at the end of the line in Los Angeles.

But even for residents who never use the Southwest Chief, its presence is a symbol. The whistle sounds, as it has since the 1800s, and it signals that men and women from large cities and small will be stopping, however briefly, in their town, at their station.

"You take pride in that sort of thing," said John Doll, a member of the city commission. "Just knowing it's there. When you see that train roll in, it's like listening to an old song that you love.

"When I was a boy, my father, my two brothers and I would ride the train to Kansas City every summer to see a ballgame. They were the Kansas City Athletics then; they weren't yet the Royals. We'd stay at the Muehlebach Hotel. Every time I see or hear that train, that's what I think about: my dad and my brothers and riding through Kansas on our way to see big-league baseball."

Nothing is forever, though, and the possibility that the Southwest Chief may, within a few years, no longer come through Garden City is one of those stories built on dry, arcane economic facts.

The great majority of tracks that Amtrak rolls over are not owned by Amtrak, but are used through financial arrangements with the freight railroads. The tracks that run through Garden City's portion of Kansas and parts of Colorado and New Mexico are owned by BNSF Railway. All across the United States, between the renowned metropolises, are smaller towns that generations ago were selected to have their own stations -- stopping-off points-- and thus were accorded a special kind of enduring identity.

This spring, the Garden City Telegram reported, Amtrak and BNSF held a meeting in Garden City with representatives of the communities the Southwest Chief serves in those three states -- towns including Dodge City, Kansas; La Junta, Colorado; Raton, New Mexico. The Telegram reported that, because of the cost of maintaining the old tracks, the Southwest Chief may, within the next several years, be switched to an entirely different BNSF route, farther south.

The sums involved are not paltry. According to the Telegram, if the Southwest Chief is to stay on its traditional route with its traditional stations, $10 million per year for track-maintenance costs and a total of $100 million for long-term improvements must be found. If not, the alternate, passenger-train-ready BNSF tracks many miles to the south beckon.

It might not make much difference to the long-haul passengers who are riding between Chicago and California and don't much care where the train stops along the way. And it certainly won't make any difference to all the travelers who fly in jet airplanes across the country and seldom look down.

But there is something about a small town that has never gone a single day, in almost 150 years, without a passenger train pulling in and pausing to see if anyone would like to step out onto the streets of Garden City, or if anyone from Garden City would like to climb aboard and join the other cross-continental travelers...

"You get on the Southwest Chief downtown," John Doll said, "and within five minutes Garden City is all behind you. You're gone, just that quickly."

When the interstate highway system was built, it managed to leave Garden City out, he said; it is an 80-mile drive on two-lane state roads to the nearest entrance to I-70.

"It would be a setback if we were to lose the passenger train," said Matt Allen, the city manager. "We like to think we are the center of activities in western Kansas, and having the daily train service is an important part of that."

And, of course, there is the romance of the rails, a romance that has somehow been able to survive all of Amtrak's struggles -- even in an era that proclaims a digital, virtual world can transport a person anywhere without that person ever leaving home. When you're boarding a long-distance train, you are not boarding a number. You are boarding a name that sounds like an orchestral overture: the City of New Orleans; the Empire Builder; the Lake Shore Limited.

Or the Southwest Chief, bound for Garden City and points beyond.

After the 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family in a farmhouse in nearby Holcomb, author Truman Capote would arrive by train at the Garden City station to do the reporting that would result in the book "In Cold Blood."

The young county prosecutor in the case, Duane West, who would help to send killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith to execution by hanging, is 80 now, and still lives in Garden City. He said that he and his wife, Orvileta, have gone down to meet the Southwest Chief twice in the past few weeks.

"We had friends visit from New Zealand," he said. "We went to the station to greet them, and we went to the station to see them off."

Efforts are under way to find financing to maintain the old tracks so the Southwest Chief will keep arriving in Garden City every day, as it always has.

And, with the clock ticking, if its time in town should end? If, before the end of this decade, the train is moved to a distant set of tracks?

The world will continue to spin. The Telegram reported that in 2011, the station in downtown Garden City served 7,511 passengers. A nice number, but not one that is likely to halt cold-eyed economic decisions.

Yet the importance of something like this to a place cannot be brushed aside.

Mayor Crase, who also runs the local Little Caesars pizza franchise, said that from his house he can hear the Southwest Chief pulling into town on its journey across America early each morning and late each night.

"I kind of enjoy listening to it," he said. "You'll hear that whistle, and on some days, when I have the windows open and the wind is right, I can hear the sound of the train idling at the station before it pulls out.

"It's part of our life. And once it's gone, it's gone."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT