Hope for Heartland Flyer Expansion? Maybe, But it Will be a Long, Difficult and Expensive Road

Amtrak garnered a lot of positive publicity recently when it operated an inspection train from Oklahoma City to Kansas City.

The train stopped in several cities in Oklahoma and Kansas that are hungry to see Amtrak return after an absence of more than 37 years.

Probably more than a few people who turned out to see the train or heard about it through the news media came away thinking that it was a giant step toward extending the route of the Heartland Flyer.

But getting Amtrak to operate an inspection train is simple compared with the work of finding a way to make the service happen. And that wasn’t something that Amtrak talked about much during the stopovers.

Instead, Amtrak spokesman Joe McHugh talked up how there had been a “tremendous turnout” in communities that haven’t seen a passenger train since the Chicago-Houston Lone Star was discontinued during a massive Amtrak route restructuring in 1979.

McHugh said Amtrak will work with BNSF, which owns the track used by the inspection train, to establish the service.

He said the next step toward passenger rail service would be planning what that service will look like, how much it will cost and what investments are necessary to rebuild the BNSF tracks.

McHugh said that work will probably last through the summer and fall.

Actually, Amtrak already knows a lot about those things.

The idea of extending the Heartland Flyer has been around for a long time.

One idea is to run it all the way to Kansas City, where it could connect with Missouri Mule service to St. Louis and the Southwest Chief to Chicago.

Another idea is to extend the Flyer to Newton, Kansas, where it would connect with the Chief.

As it is, Amtrak began Thruway bus service to Newton from Oklahoma City last year for that purpose.

It is the nature of rail passenger advocates to spin studies and inspection trains in the best possible light.

Mark Corriston, a member of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, carried a sign that he held up at the Topeka, Kansas, station – which is already served by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief – that read, “If Amtrak runs it, we will ride it.”

He told a local news reporter that the sign was out of the movie Field of Dreams, in which an Iowa farmer hears a voice saying, “If you build it, they will come.” That was in reference to a baseball diamond.

But not all passenger advocates are as sanguine.

In two postings on the NARP website, Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Oklahoma, Passenger Rail Kansas, sounded downright morose about the prospects for extending the Flyer.

His comments are illustrative of the sense of weariness that passenger advocates must feel.

As Stair sees it, the inspection train was part of a continuing dialogue rather than a means to an end.

He suspects that the inspection run “will likely become yet another symbol of dashed hopes as Amtrak’s national route system continues to stagnate.”

In 1998 Amtrak ran an inspection train to Tulsa, Oklahoma, but that has yet to materialize into scheduled intercity rail passenger service to a city that last had it on the day before Amtrak came to life in 1971.

Stair said the logical endpoints for the Heartland Flyer are Fort Worth and Kansas City.

For the past 18 years the Flyer has operated between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, connecting at the former city with the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

BNSF and Amtrak had earlier said that to operate the train between Fort Worth and Kansas City would require $479 million in capital improvements.

That figure drops to between $126 million to $156 million if the extension goes no further north than Newton.

Stair questions whether that much needs to be spent on a line that has moderate freight traffic.

In recent years, the Heartland Flyer has been funded by the states of Oklahoma and Texas.

Oklahoma nearly cut its funding by $1 million for fiscal year 2018, which would have ended or sharply curtailed operation of the train.

At the last minute, the legislature came up with the funds, but Stair noted that Oklahoma’s finances are strained due to declining revenue.

In such an environment, Stair wrote, there is little prospect for the state agreeing to meet the capital needs demanded by Amtrak and BNSF.

Heartland Flyer service expansion is essential to [its] preservation,” Stair wrote. “The train cannot survive for much longer as-is. Amtrak now recognizes this after 18 years. What took them so long? We were knocking on their doors 10 years ago!”

A more likely solution to the capital funding dilemma, Stair wrote, would be using federal grant money such as TIGER funding.

TIGER funds were used to rebuild the BNSF track in western Kansas, southeast Colorado, and northern New Mexico used by the Southwest Chief.

Yet with the Trump administration seeking to end the TIGER program, it is not clear where that funding will come from.

“There is some good news,” Stair wrote. “There are signs Amtrak managers who deal directly with the Heartland Flyer are listening. This only occurred when Passenger Rail Oklahoma encouraged, through a failed House Bill, to unbundle the Heartland Flyer contract. ODOT and TxDOT then threatened a request for proposal to unbundle the service.”

That would have meant having an operator other than Amtrak operate the train.

What Stair thinks could save the service would be the creation of an Oklahoma City section of the Texas Eagle or Southwest Chief in the same way that there is a Portland section of the Empire Builder.

That option, though, creates its own set of challenges.

For now, the Heartland Flyer continues to operate and some continue to hope that the “dialogue” will someday result in service where it does not now exist.

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One Response to “Hope for Heartland Flyer Expansion? Maybe, But it Will be a Long, Difficult and Expensive Road”

  1. Philly Amtrak Fan Says:

    I’d like to see a southbound expansion of the Heartland Flyer to Houston like the old Lone Star route (hopefully via Dallas in addition to Ft. Worth so it can also serve Dallas). I think expansion to Houston would be a more worthwhile expansion than the expansion to Newton/Kansas City since Dallas/Ft. Worth-Houston service by itself should be very popular (of course if you can expand both ways it’s a bonus).

    One problem I see with depending on Kansas for funding is that they would push for service at more convenient times for them (if you just use the current schedule the trains will serve Wichita in the middle of the night and who would want to spend a ton of money for only graveyard shift service?)

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