Tulsa Still Hoping for Rail Passenger Service

A demonstration service set to begin in February between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Okla., may be a blueprint for extending the Heartland Flyer to Tulsa or it may be a short-lived experiment that will become yet another footnote in Amtrak’s history of service expansions that never came to be.

Iowa Pacific Holdings, will sponsor three round-trips between Tulsa and Oklahoma City that have been dubbed the Eastern Flyer. The Tulsa World described the excursions as a test to determine if there is even enough interest to launch regular scheduled service.

“We really want to see what the demand is for regular passenger rail,” said Tracie VanBecelaere, a spokeswoman for Watco Cos., a small railroad operator based in of Pittsburg, Kan., and a partner on the Eastern Flyer excursions. “The main reason to run this is to get a feel for what passenger service could be like.”

Iowa Pacific and Watco will bring retro passenger cars to Oklahoma on three weekends, making round trips from Sapulpa starting in the morning with a return trip at night. Tickets start at $70 with additional charges for sitting in luxury cars and food service.

The Heartland Flyer between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, has carried more than a million passengers since it started nearly 15 years ago and reportedly the route was eventually be expanded to Tulsa.

No one involved with the Eastern Flyer has described it as the type of passenger rail service that some in the region have sought for decades. Ticket costs are too high to justify commuter passenger service and the trip is too slow.

But it has been 42 years since Tulsa had rail passenger service of any kind and 46 years since Oklahoma’s two largest cities were linked by train. Tulsa’s last passenger trains were the Santa Fe’s Tulsan, which made their last trips between Kansas City and Tulsa on April 30, 1971.

The Eastern Flyer has given some hope that a route to Oklahoma City might be within reach. It’s been 46 years since the state’s two largest cities have been linked by train.

More than 700 tickets have been sold for the Eastern Flyer, Iowa Pacific officials said.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation has received thousands of comments supporting a rail plan, saying it would connect Oklahoma City to Tulsa and reduce the need to drive.

One obstacle to starting a Tulsa-to-Oklahoma City route is a 97.5-mile stretch of state-owned rail line known as the Sooner Sub.

The class II railroad route between Sapulpa and Oklahoma City is a windy stretch of rail that the state bought in 1998 to keep it from being abandoned.

Stillwater Central Railroad, a part of Watco Cos., leases that rail line for about $500,000 a year.

The remaining stretch that connects Sapulpa to Tulsa is owned by BNSF Railway.

After 15 years of ownership, ODOT says interest has grown in the Sooner Sub line and the state has put the stretch of rail up for sale.

“The intention since the line was purchased was always to sell it at a later date,” said Tim Gatz, ODOT’s deputy director.

However, Gatz said that there are provisions in state law to ensure the Sooner Sub line is available for passenger rail in the event of a sale.

Passenger rail advocates fear that the sale of the Sooner Sub line could kill the chances of service between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Watco Cos. is interested in developing passenger rail on the line and will likely make a bid on the railline, VanBecelaere said.

But the rail line is in need of an estimated $200 million in repair and upgrades to bring it up to passenger train standards. Passing sidings would need to be added.

The top speed on the line is 30 miles per hour, said Craig Moody, rail programs division manager at ODOT.

At that rate, a trip from Sapulpa to Oklahoma City would take more than three hours, nearly double the travel time of a car on the nearby Turner Turnpike.

ODOT plans to take bids on the Sooner Sub line through Jan. 30, and the department will pass a recommendation on to a board of the governor’s cabinet later in 2014.

Oklahoma City had a 20-year absence of rail passenger service until the Heartland Flyer began in 1999.

But even with higher-than-expected patronage rates, the service was nearly discontinued when a federal grant ended in 2005. But a rally to restore the service resulted in the Oklahoma Legislature giving $2 million a year to fund the service.

Extending the route to Tulsa would seems like an obvious addition that could eventually be further extended to Kansas City, Mo.

“Oklahoma City to Tulsa is the missing link in this part of the country,” said Evan Stair with Passenger Rail Oklahoma, a private advocacy group. “The demand is there. They could do four to six trips a day.”

The Federal Railroad Administration in 2009 identified Tulsa to Oklahoma City as one of 11 potential rail projects targeted for possible federal funding.

ODOT made a proposal for federal transportation dollars in 2009 for a high-speed rail project that would accommodate a train running 110 miles per hour, but the $2 billion proposal was rejected.

Local and state politicians have tackled the concept of an Oklahoma City-to-Tulsa rail line several times over the past two decades, but those efforts have fizzled as high costs for the project were replaced by other funding priorities.

Tulsa Transit studied a link to connect Broken Arrow to downtown Tulsa, but the proposed $43 million project lost momentum because of costs and a lack of popular support.

Another proposal being studied by lawmakers and transportation officials in Kansas calls for extending the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Newton, Kan., just north of Wichita, to connect with the Chicago-Los Angles Southwest Chief. That route would bypass Tulsa.

“It’s really the best way to connect Oklahoma City to the rest of the country,” said Gary Lanman, vice president of the Northern Flyer Alliance. “If you want Amtrak service, this is the way to go.”

The Tulsa City Council formed a committee in 2012 to advocate for a passenger rail line to Oklahoma City and get it established as quickly as possible. A report from the task force said that cities along the Fort Worth-to-Oklahoma City route have seen increases in local sales because of passenger rail traffic.

In early 2013, the Oklahoma Legislature commissioned a study on the Oklahoma City-to-Tulsa passenger rail corridor, calling for an environmental study and developing proposals for what passenger rail might look like.

The intent of the study, Gatz said, is to have a “shovel ready” rail project in the event that a federal transportation grant develops to cover costs on repairs, upgrades and equipment purchases.

It’s too early, said Gatz, to see if ODOT may endorse a plan to bring a national carrier such as Amtrak to extend service to Tulsa or to contract with a local operator such as Watco Cos.

The state intends to finish gathering data sometime in 2014, develop a handful of proposals and then hold a second round of public meetings sometime next year. The entire study should be finished by summer 2015.

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