Posts Tagged ‘Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer’

Norman Depot Renovations Completed

July 13, 2017

Renovation work has been completed to the former Santa Fe Depot in Norman, Oklahoma, that is used by Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer.

The depot was built in 1909. A grand reopening festival will be held on Friday to commemorate the completion of the renovation work.

The Back on Track celebration will coincide with the city’s monthly art walk. A schedule of events is available at http://www.2ndfridaynorman.com

There will be an opening reception for “Variations on Themes,” a collection of paintings by artist Jim Cobb. Free appetizers will be served, along with libations provided by Norman’s 405 Brewing Co. and Native Spirits Winery. Live music will be provided in the portico by members of the Songwriters Association of Norman.

A raffle to raising money to pay for gallery lighting and stages will have as one of its top prizes an Amtrak voucher for a round trip to Fort Worth, Texas, for two.

The Heartland Flyer operates daily between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth.

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

June 19, 2017

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.

Wichita Union Station Could Accommodate Amtrak if it Elects to Resume Service to That City

June 16, 2017

If Amtrak ever does extend the Heartland Flyer to Kansas City, it might result in the revival of rail passenger service at Union Station in Wichita, Kansas.

The station is now owned by Occidental Management, which is in the midst of a $60 million redevelopment project there. That work began in 2014.

An Amtrak inspection train recently stopped at the station site on its journey from Oklahoma City to Kansas City.

The inspection train followed the route of Amtrak’s former Chicago-Houston train, the Lone Star, which was discontinued in early October 1979.

Amtrak spokesman Joe McHugh said during the stop in Wichita that the largest city in Kansas is one of the largest cities in the United States currently not served by Amtrak.

Gary Oborny, Chairman and CEO of Occidental Management, said the station, built in 1914, sat vacant for several years before his company acquired it.

He said the building could be configured to accommodate Amtrak either on the upper level near the railroad tracks or on a lower floor.

Oborny says upgrades wouldn’t have to be major because Amtrak’s needs are different today than they were in the 1970s.

“An Amtrak location would probably run $350,000 to $400,000,” which Oborny said would increase the cost of station renovation.

At one time, Wichita Union Station hosted passenger trains of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific; the St. Louis-San Francisco; and the Midland Valley.

Crowds Turn Out for Amtrak Inspection Train

June 13, 2017

Crowds turned out in the communities visited last week by an Amtrak inspection train that was examining a possible expansion route of the Heartland Flyer.

The train operated from Oklahoma City to Kansas City and made stops in Guthrie, Perry, and Ponca City in Oklahoma; and Arkansas City, Wichita, Newton, Emporia, and Topeka in Kansas.

The consist of the train included P40 locomotive No. 822; heritage sleeper Pacific Bend, No. 10020, originally a 10-6 sleeper built by Budd for Union Pacific in 1950; Viewliner sleeper New River, No. 62043; dome-lounge Ocean View, No. 10031, built for Great Northern by Budd in 1955; and inspection car American View, No. 10004, built by Budd as one of the Viewliner prototypes in 1994.

The route covered by the train hosted Amtrak’s Chicago-Houston Lone Star until early October 1979.

Amtrak is studying extending the Heartland Flyer to Newton or to Kansas City. At Newton, the Flyer would connect with the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

Last year a Thruway bus service began between Newton and Oklahoma City.

 

Amtrak to Inspect OKC-Kansas City Route

June 5, 2017

An Amtrak inspection train will operate on June 9 from Oklahoma City to Kansas City, Missouri, as part of a study of expansion of the Heartland Flyer.

The Flyer, which is funded by the states of Oklahoma and Texas, might be extended to Newton, Kansas, to connect with the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief. Currently, the Heartland Flyer runs between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas.

The route to be examined is owned by BNSF and until early October 1979 hosted Amtrak’s Chicago-Houston Lone Star.

The inspection train is scheduled to depart from Oklahoma City at 7:45 a.m. and reach Kansas City at 5:30 p.m. It will pass through the Oklahoma cities of Guthrie, Perry, Ponca City and Ark City; and the Kansas cities of Wichita, Newton, Emporia and Topeka. The train will pause briefly in each of these cities.

Norman to Become Locomotive Horn Quiet Zone

February 16, 2017

Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer will be making less noise as it passes through Norman, Oklahoma, starting Friday.

Heartland FlyerThe city has adopted an ordinance that will result in Amtrak and BNSF trains gradually decreasing the use of locomotive horns.

Eventually, Norman will become a quiet zone although locomotive engineers will be permitted to sound the horn for safety reasons.

The city has installed median barriers and warning signs at grade crossing as required by federal law in order to qualify as a quiet zone for locomotive horns.

Norman, the hometown of the University of Oklahoma, has been working since 2015 to establish itself as a quiet zone.

Quik-Track Machine Removed From OKC Depot

November 8, 2016

Amtrak said an increase in passengers going online to make reservations has resulted in the removal of a Quik-Trak ticketing kiosk from its Oklahoma City Station.

Heartland FlyerIn a service advisory, Amtrak said that passengers can use other self-service options such as Amtrak.com or its mobile apps to make reservations and print their tickets before arriving at the station.

A smart phone or other mobile devices can also be used to present an eTicket to the conductor on the train.

Oklahoma City is served by the daily Oklahoma City-Fort Worth, Texas, Heartland Flyer.

Hearing Examines Heartland Flyer Operation

October 31, 2016

Some Oklahoma officials are raising questions about why their state pays more to fund the Heartland Flyer than does Texas.

Heartland FlyerThose questions were explored during a meeting of the Oklahoma Senate Transportation Committee last week in Norman, Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Senator Frank Simpson asked for a study, noting that at one time the two states split the costs of the Flyer 50-50.

But now, Simpson noted, the split is closer to 60-40 and Oklahoma cities have invested millions of dollars in infrastructure investments to their stations. Simpson believes that Texas may be receiving economic benefits for which it does not pay.

He also believes that the schedule of the Oklahoma City-Fort Worth, Texas, train favors the Lone Star state.

“The daily schedule really favors Texas—it’s more convenient for riders traveling south than it is for those coming north,” Simpson said. “I’m also concerned that the contract only runs a year at a time. I think when we have cities in Oklahoma making major investments a longer term contract would be tremendously helpful.”

The Heartland Flyer is scheduled to connect in Fort Worth with the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

Testimony introduced during the hearing indicated that the preliminary findings of a feasibility study to extend the Heartland Flyer to Newton, Kansas, to connect with the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief, indicates that ridership of the Flyer might more than double.

Simpson called for a longer-term contract with Texas and a schedule that is more advantageous for Oklahoma.

“Oklahoma City is investing close to $30 million. My small community of Ardmore is going to make an investment of almost $2 million. I want to make sure they have a sense of security in doing that. That would come with a long-term contract, five or 10 years out,” Simpson said. “The long-term agreement question was not answered, but that’s something I’ve got to pursue with ODOT and probably with Texas.”

The committee also heard that Amtrak may establish a stop for the Flyer in Thackerville, Oklahoma, which is near the Chickasaw Nation’s WinStar World Casino and Resort.

Private Operator Taking Over Heartland Flyer May be Key to Returning Rail Service to Wichita

September 21, 2016

Amtrak hasn’t served Wichita, Kansas, since October 1979 when the Chicago-Houston Lone Star was discontinued in a massive route restructuring designed to cut costs.

Now Kansas officials are hoping that Iowa Pacific Holdings can be the ticket to restoring rail service by extending the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Wichita; Newton, Kansas; or Kansas City.

Heartland FlyerThe Flyer is a student-supported train that currently operates between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, where it connects with the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle.

Iowa Pacific has been mentioned as a potential operator of the Heartland Flyer. Oklahoma is seeking proposals from entities willing to run the Flyer at presumably less cost than what the Oklahoma and Texas departments of transportation are now paying Amtrak.

The two states are paying Amtrak about $2.5 million and $3.5 million a year, from Texas and Oklahoma respectively, to operate the service, which serves more than 70,000 passengers a year.

Continued operation of the Heartland Flyer was in question earlier this year when an Oklahoma lawmaker said the state didn’t have the money to pay for the train.

But the Oklahoma Legislature approved used money from a $5 million annual revolving fund that supports the Heartland Flyer to make up the budget shortfall.

Kenna Carmen, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, said the state has enough funds to keep the Flyer running through the next fiscal year.

IP more than a year ago took over from Amtrak operation of the quad-weekly Hoosier State between Chicago and Indianapolis and has received acclaim for improving the service.

IP has been identified as one of seven potential bidders to take over the Heartland Flyer.

Ed Ellis, the head of IP, said the key to bringing costs down is charging passengers more for enhanced service – something he bets they’re willing to pay.

“They would love to have a better travel experience even if it costs more money,” Ellis said.

Although Wichita is not served by Amtrak, a Thruway bus connects the city with the Heartland Flyer at Oklahoma City.
Extending the Flyer into Kansas could cost more than $100 million for additional equipment and such capital costs as track improvements and new stations.

Officials say that the state of finances in Kansas state government means that cities to be served by the Flyer would have to to cover the operating costs that ordinarily the states would pick up.

“It’s one of those situations where it’s going to take broad-based support,” said John Maddox, program director for rail at the Kansas Department of Transportation.

Kansas is served by one Amtrak route, the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief, which stops in Newton, about 25 miles north of Wichita.

The state was part of an effort to win a federal grant that was used to rebuild the tracks used by the Chief in western Kansas that kept it on its current route for the foreseeable future.

The Thruway bus that links Wichita and Oklahoma City also operates to Newton to connect with the Chief.

BNSF Track Work to Cancel Heartland Flyer

August 26, 2016

BNSF track work will affect operations of the Heartland Flyer between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, in September.

Heartland FlyerAmtrak said Train 822 will be cancelled on Sept. 18. Passengers will be provided bus service at all stations on the route.

Train 821 will be cancelled on Sept. 19 with passengers riding a chartered bus. On both dates, bicycles will not be accepted aboard the buses.

Amtrak also reminds passengers that new schedules for Nos. 821/822 are now in effect. The primary change is that Train 822 now departs earlier at stations from Gainesville, Texas, to Oklahoma City.