Is it Worth it for Amtrak to Expand in Nebraska?

June 24, 2021, 7 a.m. ·

Lincoln's Amtrak station after the westbound train departs near 1 a.m.
Lincoln's Amtrak station is home to the California Zephyr, which runs westbound toward Denver and leaves Lincoln at 12:15 a.m. The eastbound train, headed to Chicago, leaves at 3:30 a.m. (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Bob Kuzelka is in his element. It’s a few minutes after midnight and the California Zephyr has just pulled into Amtrak’s station in downtown Lincoln.

"I don't travel as much as I did," he said. "When I was using it more, I would average at least a trip a year probably."

Kuzelka is an avid Amtrak supporter and vice president of a group called ProRail Nebraska – a collection of Nebraskans who support passenger rail and want to expand its services in the Cornhusker State. Currently, there’s just one eastbound and westbound trip a night that run through the state. The group would like to change that.

“What we would like to see is another pair of trips every day that would go from Denver to Lincoln, Omaha to Chicago, but in the daytime," Kuzelka said.

Ridership on Amtrak trains is starting to bounce back as daily service has resumed as the pandemic has waned nationwide. The question arises: Is it worth it for Amtrak to expand its operations in Nebraska?

The answer to that question depends on who you ask. For ProRail Nebraska members the answer is a resounding yes. However, the other side of the argument would question if the demand for Amtrak ridership is great enough to warrant more high-dollar investment by the state and federal government. How those talks shake out is still up in the air, but big changes to Amtrak in Nebraska likely won’t happen overnight or anytime soon.

Expanding passenger service and repairing Amtrak's aging stations across the country isn’t a new idea. In fact, Amtrak drew up expansion goals for 2035 earlier this year. Many see the next few years as an opportune time for Amtrak because of President Joe Biden, sometimes known as "Amtrak Joe," a fervent Amtrak supporter. He’s long talked about using Amtrak as a way to travel to Washington D.C. from Delaware when he was a U.S. Senator.

As part of Biden’s infrastructure plan, $75 billion could go to Amtrak expansion. Depending on negotiations between congressional Republicans and The White House, that figure could change.

The big ask for Nebraska rail advocates is a train that runs through Nebraska during the daytime. Right now, the westbound train headed toward Denver – which eventually ends up in San Francisco Bay area – leaves Lincoln at 12:15 a.m. The eastbound train, headed toward Chicago, leaves at 3:30 a.m. The other Nebraska stops (Omaha, Hastings, Holdrege and McCook) are no different: riders must make a late night or early morning trek to the train station.

Amtrak's route through Nebraska. It runs from Omaha to Lincoln, Hastings, Holdrege and McCook
The California Zephyr runs through Omaha to Lincoln, Hastings, Holdrege and McCook. (Illustration courtesy Amtrak)

The second ask for organizations like ProRail, among many others, is adding onto an Amtrak expansion through Iowa, proposed in the 2035 plans, that would add another route to Chicago from Nebraska. The current proposal would connect Iowa City to Chicago. Nebraska advocates would like to see that line extend beyond Iowa City to Des Moines and meet up with Omaha's Amtrak station.

Amtrak is currently discussing doubling its frequency with its northern train, the Empire Builder, in Minnesota and Wisconsin. How realistic would that same change be for Denver to Chicago?

“The same kind of thing could be discussed in Lincoln and Omaha," said Marc Magliari, Amtrak's Midwest spokesperson. "Imagine a train that leaves Chicago at about 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning, makes its way across to give people a better way to get back and forth – maybe even the same day.”

Right now, these suggestions are just ideas. What Amtrak needs to happen – in order to make these ideas reality – is money, a change in laws and a willingness from state governments to support it. The problem with the federal law – in Amtrak’s eyes – is that state’s need to pony up a lot of money even before the train hits the tracks. That prevents an initial investment, Amtrak and it's supporters say.

“It's been cracked in some places – certainly Virginia," Magilari said. "We're doing lots of service expansion there. Here in the Greater Chicago Amtrak Midwest network, we've been doing service expansion and service improvement. But in a place like Omaha or Lincoln, where the train goes through in the late night, early morning, and people don't even see it, it's harder to get people's minds around that when the only evidence of Amtrak services is late at night and early morning.”

Amtrak would like the law to allow investments from the state to happen after new rail service proves its worth, Magliari said.

At this point, it appears Nebraska and Iowa don’t quite have the support Amtrak or ProRail may want to expand. In 2018, the Nebraska Legislature withdrew the state's membership from the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, an association that oversees and coordinates the development of passenger rail service.

"We have been told by Amtrak that if Nebraska is ever to receive federal funding for rail passenger projects in Nebraska, our state must be a part of MIPRC," wrote Richard Schmeling, another ProRail member, in a Lincoln Journal Star column earlier this month.

Bob Kuzelka and Richard Schmeling Pose After Amtrak Resumes Daily Service in Late May
Bob Kuzelka (left) and Richard Schmeling (right) with an Amtrak employee after Amtrak resumed daily service in late May. (Photo courtesy Bob Kuzelka)

In some areas, the argument against Amtrak expansion lies among private freight companies that own most of the nation's rail lines outside of the northeast. Amtrak uses freight rail lines and is often at the mercy of their schedules, even though there is a federal agreement that Amtrak has priority. Along the Gulf Coast , opposition from the freight train industry could halt a 2022 start date on restoring a passenger line.

Omaha is home to Union Pacific – one of the nation’s biggest freight carriers. UP declined an interview, but a spokesperson said in a statement: "We are 100% committed to meeting our obligation with Amtrak in Nebraska and that the more we collaborate, the more we both benefit."

Those who might benefit from more Amtrak in Nebraska could be people like Molly Ebbers, a Lincoln public schools teacher. Her family beat her out to Denver on a family vacation, and, to save money, she was taking the Zephyr for the first time.

"A tank of gas would be $55 for me, and I drive an SUV. And then we'd end up with two vehicles on the other end," she said. "So my ticket was $62. And then I'll get there, and it's time efficient and cost efficient and energy efficient.”

It could be a long time before Amtrak makes moves in Nebraska. For that to happen, Kuzelka said he and others need to convince people in the state it’s worth it.

“So some states get it and understand it," Kuzelka said. "And we're constantly hoping that we can get the word out to our state.”

Until then, Nebraskans will continue to hear a midnight – or later – whistle.