Posts Tagged ‘Oklahoma Department of Transportation’

Oklahoma Passenger Service Plan Falls Through

August 8, 2019

A plan to expand intercity rail passenger service in Oklahoma has fallen through because the railroad that was to provide the service has ended its participation in the six-month pilot program.

The Stillwater Central Railroad told the Oklahoma Department of Transportation it would be unable to meet an Aug. 4 deadline to launch the service between Del City and Sapulpa, Oklahoma.

The railroad, which is owned by Watco, cited “changing conditions” but did not elaborate on those in a news release other than to say passenger service is no longer financially viable.

The passenger service pilot program was a requirement of the $75 million sale of the Sooner Sub rail line to Stillwater Central in 2014 by ODOT.

The Stillwater Central had agreed to provide the passenger service at no cost to the state or taxpayers.

ODOT said Stillwater Central has met all other provisions in the sale agreement and will pay ODOT $2.8 million in liquidated damages.

“The department is disappointed that the pilot program didn’t launch, as it would he helped determine the long-term viability of passenger service on this line,” state officials said. “ODOT will continue to be open to and explore other options from the private sector for a cost-effective solutions for future passenger service.”

Okla. Hails Inclusion of Heartland Flyer Extension

March 29, 2019

Oklahoma officials are hailing the inclusion of an extension of Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer in the passenger carrier’s budget request for Congress even though much remains to be done before that will occur.

Amtrak’s federal fiscal year 2020 grant request identified as a priority extending the Flyer from its northern terminus of Oklahoma City to Newton, Kansas, where it could connect with the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

The Heartland Flyer now operates daily between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, with $3.1 million annual funding from the State of Oklahoma. The Flyer is the only Amtrak service in the Sooner State.

“We have been working with Amtrak on this option for a while, so we are glad it is included,” said Brenda Perry, a spokeswoman with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

The Amtrak budget request does not specify how much money the carrier is seeking for the extension of the Flyer.

Perry said the extension would also need funding from the State of Kansas. The prospects of that occurring are unclear.

She also said extending the Flyer would require more money from Oklahoma as well.

“Funding is always something that has to be worked through because the extension would require more ODOT funding than what we currently pay for the train going from here to Fort Worth,” Perry said.

The Heartland Flyer serves about 68,000 passengers a year.

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.

7 Interested in Operating Heartland Flyer

July 19, 2016

A proposal to seek bids to operate the Oklahoma City-Fort Worth, Texas, Heartland Flyer has drawn interest from seven companies.

They include Iowa Pacific, PTSI Transportation, Herzog, First Transit, Corridor Capital, Amtrak, and a company named Erie Lackawanna.

Heartland FlyerProposals are being sought by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, which underwrites much of the costs of the Heartland Flyer.

The train is currently operated by Amtrak.

News media reports indicated that state officials have not named a timeline for when the state will begin receiving bids to operate the Flyer.

ODOT Seeks RFQ on Heartland Flyer

June 7, 2016

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation has issued a request for qualifications for providers interested in operating the Heartland Flyer.

The train is currently operated by Amtrak with funding from the states of Texas and Oklahoma.

Heartland FlyerODOT and the Texas Department of Transportation are seeking to gauge the interest of companies that could provide train crews, rolling stock, train maintenance, on-board food and beverage, ticketing, and support personnel.

Issuance of the RFQ doesn’t necessarily mean the departments will proceed with a request for proposals, however. Responses to the RFQ are due by June 22.

The Heartland Flyer began operating in June 1999 between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, with funding part provided by Oklahoma.

Texas began helping to fund the train, which connect in Fort Worth with the Chicago-San Antonio Texas Eagle in 2006.

Heartland Flyer to Run for Another Year

June 6, 2016

The State of Oklahoma has agreed to pay Amtrak $3.7 million to keep the Heartland Flyer operating for another year.

Heartland FlyerThe future of the Oklahoma City-Fort Worth, Texas, train had been in doubt after some Sooner state lawmakers talked about ending its funding due to a $1.3 billion budget shortfall.

However, the legislature agreed to appropriate $2.84 million and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation will make up the rest of the funding from its general budget.

The department is also seeking ways to reduce cost while at the same time increasing service to two roundtrips a day. A department spokeswoman said increasing service would make the route a more viable transportation option.

The cost of operating the Heartland Flyer has nearly doubled over the past seven years because the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay a larger share of costs of state-funded trains.

Heartland Flyer May Lose Oklahoma Funding

March 29, 2015

Faced with a funding shortfall, Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, may be in danger of discontinuance.

The state pays Amtrak $2.9 million to operate the train and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation said that is expected to increase to $3.2 million

“Why are we doing this?” asked Senate Appropriations Chairman Clark Jolley, R-Edmond. “Is it more effective and efficient to invest in maintenance and roads that are used more? There is consistent criticism that there is no reason to support rail.”

Patronage of the train, which began in 1999 was 26,832 in its first year. It reached 87,873 in 2012, but has since fallen to 81,226.

Oklahoma and Texas pay 75 percent of the cost of a trip to Fort Worth on the train, which is operated by Amtrak, said Mike Patterson, ODOT executive director.

“Every public transit program in the country and most likely in the whole world is subsidized at some level,” Patterson said. “The governing body has to decide how much they want to participate in that subsidy.”

Patterson said the state’s cost has increased because Amtrak’s contribution to the route has fallen. Amtrak has also warned that raising fares would likely reduce ridership.

Oklahoma lawmakers are seeking ways to make up a $611 million drop in revenue for the state overall, hence the talk of ending state funding of Amtrak service.

Texas has limited its contributions to the Heartland Flyer at $2.5 million.

Amtrak and Oklahoma are operating under a month-to-month contract, and ODOT officials hope Amtrak will reduce the cost, but that might only be possible with fewer train trips.

ODOT Division Engineer John Bowman said the agency has worked with Amtrak to find cost reductions without decreasing service, such as removing one of two locomotives or decreasing the number of passenger cars during non-peak times. However, those changes can only go so far.

“We’ve been going back and forth with [Amtrak] since July on working with those numbers, and we have had some success,” Bowman says. “But more needs to be done.”

Texas transportation officials have explored the possibility of using buses to replace some rail service, an option ODOT says it hopes not to do.

“We have not had much discussion about that,” Patterson said. “I was approached in November from the leadership in TxDOT that they were looking at that type of arrangement. We are making every effort to come up with a solution, but it’s got to be Amtrak’s solution.”

As for a private company taking over management of the Heartland Flyer, Patterson said that would be difficult. “There’s been some discussion about bringing in another carrier,” Patterson says. “But my understanding is that BNSF or any of the Class I operators [along the Heartland Flyer route] want to only let Amtrak run on their line because of the liability issues.”

Iowa Pacific Seeks to Provide Okla. Service

February 21, 2014

Iowa Pacific Holdings is seeking approval from then state of Oklahoma to operate regular passenger service over state-owned tracks.

The letter to Gov. Mary Fallin said IP wants to launch passenger train service on the Tulsa-Oklahoma City corridor “at once.”

The letter from IP President Ed Ellis says the Eastern Flyer demonstration trains running this month on the Stillwater Central’s Sooner Subdivision have been highly successful operationally and with customers. The trains operated between Tulsa suburb Sapulpa, and Midwest City, an Oklahoma City suburb.

“We operated these demonstration trains to validate our assumptions regarding passenger service in the corridor which we have proposed to operate at no cost to the State of Oklahoma, unlike the [Amtrak] Heartland Flyer which costs the State of Oklahoma over $2 million annually,” Ellis said. “Now that the demonstration runs have given us both data and experience, and some exceptionally positive customer feedback, we are prepared to begin regular service at once, with phased improvements to come over the next one to two years.

Ellis asked that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation immediately name Iowa Pacific as “passenger operator” on the Sooner Subdivision, including the Oklahoma Department of Transportation-owned rights into downtown Tulsa, and engage with Iowa Pacific in developing a contract for passenger train service on the Sooner Sub.

“We request that the contract development begin independently of any potential sale of the line, since the line is presently owned by the state, since no decision has been made on a buyer, and since the State retains complete rights to contract for passenger service at this time,” Ellis wrote. Iowa Pacific is asking for a five-year contract with the state, renewable for three successive five-year terms.

Oklahoma purchased the line from BNSF in 1998. Watco affiliate Stillwater Central operates freight service on the route under a lease that runs 2017, but the state is considering selling the line. Four bidders have emerged: BNSF Railway, Watco, Iowa Pacific and Fortress. A state panel will review the bids and decide whether to accept one of the bids in April or May.

Ellis said passenger trains could be running by Memorial Day. Under the IP plan,  service would be phased in as follows

• May 1, 2014: Two daily round trips between Sapulpa and Midwest City, with a running time of 2 hours, 50 minutes.

• Sept. 1, 2014: Six round trips between Sapulpa and Midwest City with a running time of 2 hours, 25 minutes. Five round trips would be offered on weekends.

• Oct. 1, 2014: Six round trips between Sapulpa and Midwest, and two round trips between Tulsa and Midwest City. The running time between Tulsa and Sapulpa is to be determined with BNSF. Five round trips would be offered on weekends.

• Within nine months of startup, reduce the running time to 2 hours, 15 minutes through improvements to curve elevation and improvements to main track speed.

Dedicated shuttles will be provided from Sapulpa and Midwest City to downtowns, universities, airports, and Bartlesville. Intermediate stops will be established at Bristow and Stroud. Iowa Pacific would also run additional special event trains as may be warranted for sports, entertainment and special events. Running times will be determined jointly with Stillwater Central.

Iowa Pacific says it will take all revenue risk for operation of these services, and there will be no purchase-of-service cost to the state of Oklahoma. The company will pay the train-mile cost (as adjusted for inflation) for use of the trackage rights between Sapulpa and Tulsa and be responsible for all costs to develop, operate, and maintain stations along the route.

The proposal asks the state to use its best efforts to secure funds for additional upgrading of the Sapulpa-Midwest City line, and to work with Iowa Pacific and the city of Oklahoma City to secure rail access between Midwest City and the Santa Fe station in downtown Oklahoma City, so that all trains can operate from downtown Tulsa to downtown Oklahoma City.

Tulsa Still Hoping for Rail Passenger Service

January 12, 2014

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.