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Kansas Scenic Train Rides (2024): A Complete Guide

Last revised: December 10, 2023

By: Adam Burns

As an agricultural region, Kansas was once home to many fabled Midwestern railroads like the Rock Island, Milwaukee Road, Burlington, Union Pacific, Missouri-Kansas-Texas, Kansas City Southern, and Missouri Pacific.

Laying within America's so-called "Breadbasket" the Sunflower State enjoyed a robust railroad economy with over 9,000 miles crisscrossing its borders.

Since it contained many through routes with somewhat fewer branch lines it has not suffered as many abandonments as nearby states like Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

Today, Kansas is home to nearly a half-dozen museums that do a fine job telling the history of its railroads.

There are also a handful of scenic train rides to enjoy including the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad, Heart of the Heartlands, and the Midland Railway.

Please note! The information here pertains only to Kansas train rides related to vacation and tourism destinations. If you are interested in intercity/long distance rail travel please visit Amtrak's website.

23958261272359823698293807.jpgSanta Fe 3415 is a 1919 Baldwin Pacific Locomotive, given to the city of Abilene, Kansas, in 1955 as a park exhibit and later restored by an all-volunteer staff on the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad. The iconic engine is the only operating steam engine in Kansas.

State Rail History

The development of railroads in Kansas began soon after Congress opened its lands to white settlement in the spring of 1854, according to the Kansas Historical Society. 

As the fastest, efficient, and most effective means of transportation, leaders soon realized the iron horse's need to properly develop and grow the territory's fledgling economy. 

As a result, the Leavenworth, Pawnee & Western Railroad (LP&W) was chartered on February 1, 1855.  However, with few settlements (much of which remained under control of the Native Americans) and little capital available the project lay dormant. 

Finally, when the U.S. government launched the Transcontinental Railroad in 1862, following President Abraham Lincoln signage of the Pacific Railroad Act into law on July 1st that year, things got moving once more. 

This legislation created the Union Pacific Railway, authorized to build west from Omaha, Nebraska to connect with the already-established Central Pacific Railroad building east from Sacramento, California.

The LP&W was subsequently renamed as the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division in July, 1863 with intentions of connecting with Union Pacific's main line.

It's official intentions stated it:

"...shall build the railroad from the mouth of the Kansas River, by the way of Leavenworth, or if that be not deemed the best route, then the said company shall, within two years, build a railroad from the city of Leavenworth to unite with the main stem at or near the city of  Lawrence; but to aid in the construction of said branch the said company shall not be entitled to any bonds. 

And if the Union Pacific Railroad Company shall not be proceeding in good faith to build the said railroad through the Territories, when the Leavenworth, Pawnee and Western Railroad Company, now known as the Union Pacific Railroad Company, Eastern Division, shall have completed their road to the hundredth degree of longitude, then the last named company may proceed to make said road westward, until it meets and connects with the Central Pacific Railroad Company on the same line. 

And the said railroad, from the mouth of the Kansas River to the one hundredth meridian of longitude, shall be made by the way of Lawrence and Topeka, or on the bank of the Kansas River opposite said towns.

In the end, promoters managed to achieve a Congressional amendment enabling them to build beyond the one-hundredth meridian and continue on to Denver. 

After the company's name was changed again on March 3, 1869 as the Kansas Pacific Railway the latter city was reached by 1870. 

Service would commence on September 1st that year.  Following the financial Panic of 1873 the company struggled and was eventually acquired by Jay Gould on March 7, 1879. 

836265236523857217352396892897.jpgAbilene’s historic Rock Island Depot was built in 1887. Today, the depot sits by the tracks at the head of Old Abilene Town and serves as the headquarters for the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad. The depot has gift shop and the Fred Schmidt Railroad Museum.

This notorious, yet powerful, tycoon also controlled Union Pacific and merged the Kansas Pacific and subsidiary Denver Pacific into the UP on January 24, 1880 to form the new Union Pacific Railway. 

During is heyday in the 1920's, Kansas enjoyed some 9,400 miles of railroad; over the years, particularly after the 1970's, competition, overbuilt trackage, and severe government regulation has seen this number decline to just 4,768 miles today according to the Association of American Railroads.

When avid excursion train riders think of states that offer incredible journeys by rail, Kansas would not make most lists.

To some extent this is true; however, the three attractions found there do offer bucolic scenery through rolling hills and open farmland, hosting special events like "A Day Out With Thomas."

Noteworthy is the Abilene & Smoky Valley, which the chance to see a historic, operating steam locomotive. If you are interested in catching one of the state's excursions be sure and do so during their operating season between the spring and fall. 

If you are interested in Kansas scenic train rides that pertain to specific events, such as "The Polar Express," Halloween, Thomas the Tank Engine excursions, or fall foliage events please visit the main tourist trains section of this website.

Overview

Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad

By: Steven Smethers

(Abilene): The Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad was founded in 1993 as a living history museum project dedicated to preserving the legacy of the railroad industry in Kansas by highlighting the interconnectedness of railroads, the people, and the land in the state.

An all-volunteer organization, the A&SV runs regular excursion trains, private charters, school field trip excursions and dinner trains between Abilene, Kansas, and the neighboring Dickinson County community of Enterprise. The railroad is part of Abilene’s famed “Five Star” Museum District that includes the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

The A&SV operates on rails laid in 1886 by the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, which began expanding its vast rail network into Kansas, and connected its mainline to the lucrative central Kansas grain elevators and flour mills through the 49-mile Herington-Salina sub.

In 1980, the Rock Island was granted bankruptcy, and the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) railroad operated the line as the Oklahoma-Kansas-Texas (OKT) until 1988, when the Katy merged with the Missouri Pacific, and a year later the Union Pacific acquired the Missouri Pacific’s assets. The Herington-Salina subdivision became a Union Pacific property, and the UP had no plans to use the former Rock Island rails through Abilene.


Santa Fe 4-6-2 #3415 Steam Locomotive

Originally built in 1919, Santa Fe 3415 is the only operating steam locomotive in Kansas and one of a handful of ATSF steam engines still in operation nationwide. It was placed on the National Record if Historic Places in 2012.

The engine is a Baldwin 4-6-2 “Pacific” locomotive, originally built for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1919. For the next 34 years, the engine logged over 1.8 million miles on passenger runs primarily between Kansas City and Chicago. During its final year of service, the engine ran from Kansas City to Newton to Oklahoma City.

The Santa Fe Railroad scrapped most of its steam locomotives after they were phased out in favor of diesel power in the late 1940s. But some of the classic engines were spared to serve as mementos of America’s glorious era of steam power. In honor of Abilene’s longtime affiliation with the Santa Fe, railroad officials donated Engine 3415 to the city in 1955, where it sat on display in Eisenhower Park for over 40 years.

After the Abilene and Smoky Valley heritage railroad was organized 1993, some local rail enthusiasts turned their attention to the iconic steam engine in the park and began an effort to rebuild it. The City of Abilene donated the locomotive to the A&SV, which raised $283,368—mostly a combination grants from state agencies--to make the engine operational.

That financial assistance, along with 12,000 volunteer hours, made it happen. The process began in 2006, and after four years of construction work, the restored engine began making its first revenue excursion runs between Abilene and Enterprise in 2009.

Today, the iconic engine is the most recognized symbol of the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad and has attracted “railfan” passengers from across the country. It has been featured on nationally syndicated TV programs, such as the PBS series “Tracks Ahead,” and has been the subject of numerous articles in railroad and travel publications. This spring, the Saturday Evening Post web site listed the Abilene and Smoky Valley as one of the top seven steam excursion rides in America.

The railroad uses Santa Fe 3415 primarily during the weekends from May through October, drawing railfans from across America who specifically visit Abilene to ride the A&SV’s steam powered trains.


Two local men decided to try to save the Rock Island legacy in Dickinson County. Joe Minnick and the late Fred Schmidt approached the Union Pacific and proposed to acquire the Rock Island rail between Abilene and Woodbine, Kansas. The two railfans had the backing of the community, including some banks in the county, who agreed to loan the money for the purchase of track between Enterprise and Woodbine. The Abilene to Enterprise leg of the line was donated.

The Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad Association was thus born in 1993. The railroad gradually began acquiring rolling stock, including a century-old Santa Fe steam locomotive, a first-generation diesel switch engine and vintage passenger and freight cars, including a 1902 MKT wooden passenger car, a 1930s vintage Chicago and Northwestern passenger coach, a gondola car made for the Missouri Pacific in June 1951, and a Union Pacific caboose.

Today, the A&SV is a popular fixture in local and state tourism that extends its mission to serving schools and youth organizations in the region. A&SV passengers don’t just ride the rails.  

They experience train operations firsthand by touring the engines; observing crew members doing their jobs; asking questions of volunteer engineers, conductors, brakemen, firemen and car hosts; and hearing the story of how the Rock Island once provided dependable transportation service that was the lifeline of a burgeoning regional agribusiness industry. Passengers can even pay a special fee and ride in the Union Pacific caboose or the cab of the engines.

The Abilene and Smoky Valley's Flint Hills Express excursion train runs from April through September. The Smoky Valley Limited dinner train, featuring great Kansas home cooking from area restaurants and caterers, runs a year-round schedule. 

The Great Pumpkin Patch Express, featuring characters from the Peanuts comic strip and a train trip to the pumpkin patch east of Abilene, runs during October. The Cowtown Santa Express runs from Thanksgiving weekend through December 23.  The full schedule is available at asvrr.org.

Great Overland Station

This museum is located in North Topeka and housed within Union Pacific's beautifully preserved and restored stone/brick station completed in January of 1927. 

It was the work of renowned architect Gilbert Underwood, designed in the Free Classic Revival Style.  The building remained in use as a passenger terminal until 1971 and then as an office through 1989. 

After fire left part of the structure damaged in 1992 a group known as Topeka Railroad Days, Inc. (now known as Railroad Heritage, Inc.) reached a deal to renovate the station and it became a museum a few years later. 

It was subsequently placed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 1, 2002. 

Today, the impressive structure offers numerous historic displays to peruse (not all of which relate to railroads) and also holds several events throughout the year.  

Great Plains Transportation Museum

This museum, located in downtown Wichita along the active main line of the BNSF Railway, features a collection of rolling stock and artifacts. 

Its mission statement notes the group's goal, "is to preserve and convey the unique history of railroading in the Great Plains through acquisition, restoration, research, exhibition, and education.

Their featured pieces include Santa Fe 4-8-4 #3768 (out-shopped by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1938) and Santa Fe FP45 #93 (built as #103), manufactured by General Motors' Electro-Motive Division in December, 1967. 

Finally, just next door is Wichita Union Station, a beautiful structure completed in 1914. 

During its heyday this building hosted trains of the Santa Fe, Rock Island, Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railway (acquired by the Santa Fe in 1928), and the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway (Frisco). 

Plans call for the building, which is listed on the National Register, to be renovated. The Great Plains Transportation Museum is open on select days throughout the year.

Heart of the Heartlands, Inc.

A rather odd name for a tourist railroad, Heart of the Heartlands, Inc. is based in Scammon, Kansas. 

They host trips (either standard excursions or rides in motorcars/speeders, devices once common to ferry track workers/maintenance-of-way personnel from place to place) over the South Kansas & Oklahoma, a short line freight system that is a division of Watco, Inc. 

The SK&O operates more than 400 miles across southeastern Kansas, northeastern Oklahoma, and western Missouri. 

The tracks it utilizes were formerly owned by three notable railroads; Missouri Pacific, St. Louis-San Francisco, and Santa Fe.  Heart of the Heartlands also acts as a railroad museum with numerous in-door displays to peruse. To learn more please visit their website.

Liberal Rock Island Depot

This small depot, a brick/stucco structure completed in 1912 for the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (Rock Island), currently houses the local Liberal Chamber of Commerce. 

The building was completely renovated in 1998; inside they have a small collection of artifacts on display.  To visit the building please call 620-624-3855.

Santa Fe Depot

This small museum, which also acts as a stop for Amtrak trains, is located inside the Santa Fe's restored brick depot in Kingman (completed in 1910).  The facility is only open by chance or appointment.  To visit the depot, which houses railroad and local artifacts, please call 620-532-2142.


Ottawa Northern Railroad

The Ottawa Northern Railroad began operations in 2023 over what was formerly the Midland Railway.  This operation began in 1987, an all-volunteer tourist train maintained by the Midland Railway Historical Association, based  Baldwin City.  

They had an impressive collection of equipment and maintained track that stretched about 20-miles at its farthest, along a former branch line of the Santa Fe.

Additionally, there were special events hosted during the year including "A Day Out With Thomas" the tank engine, train robberies, and a first-class dinner train. 


SteamLocomotive.com

Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource on the study of steam locomotives. 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website. 

It is quite staggering and a must visit!