Jan. 05--Amtrak's Heartland Flyer between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, has boarded more than a million passengers since it started operation nearly 15 years ago -- and service to Tulsa was supposedly not far behind.
But since then only a handful of tourist trains have made the slow, windy trek from Sapulpa to Oklahoma City, mostly filled with railroad enthusiasts.
Starting next month a promotional rail company, Iowa Pacific Holdings, will chart three round-trip passages from Tulsa to the Oklahoma capital and back called the "Eastern Flyer," a test for many to see if there is even enough interest to chart a regular service route.
"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 in the state based out of Pittsburg, Kan., and a partner on the Eastern Flyer trip. "The main reason to run this is to get a feel for what passenger service could be like."
Iowa Pacific and Watco plan to 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.
No one involved with the project says the Eastern Flyer compares to the kind of regular passenger rail service many in the region have sought for decades. The ticket costs are too high to justify commuter passenger service, the trip too slow.
But in a region deprived of passenger train service for 46 years, the Eastern Flyer gives some hope that a route to Oklahoma City might be within reach.
The Eastern Flyer promotional train has sold more than 700 tickets, Iowa Pacific officials said Friday. Also, the state Department of Transportation received thousands of comments supporting a rail plan, saying it would connect Oklahoma City to Tulsa and reduce the need to drive.
A line in limbo
Any chance of a Tulsa-to-Oklahoma City train route is made possible by a 97.5-mile stretch of state-owned rail line known as the Sooner Sub.
The class II railroad connects from Sapulpa to Oklahoma City on a windy stretch of rail that runs through Bristow and Stroud.
The state bought the little-used railroad in 1998 to keep it from being abandoned. Stillwater Central Railroad, a part of Watco Cos., leases that stretch of railroad for about $500,000 a year.
The remaining stretch that connects Sapulpa to Tulsa is owned by BNSF Railway. BNSF Railway is owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway. A subsidiary of the company, BH Media, bought the Tulsa World last year.
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 have been provisions made in state law to make sure that 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 rail line, VanBecelaere said.
But now the rail line is in need of desperate repair. Watco executives have said the line needs more than $200 million in repair and upgrades to be in condition for regular passenger rail service. Siding areas would need to be added to allow trains to pass one another and stretches of track need to be straightened.
Due to the track's current condition, trains are only capable of traveling about 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 along the Turner Turnpike.