A Regional Vision...

What is the 'Eastern Flyer' in Eastern Flyer Polar Express?
November 25, 2016

       It has been almost seven years since the concept of an Oklahoma City-Tulsa passenger train was proposed. We are preparing to ramp up our advocacy efforts in 2017, understanding. We have waited to long to take action.

       The Eastern Flyer Polar Express is a service operated by Iowa Pacific Holdings (IPH) between Stillwater and the "North Pole" aka. Yost Lake. It is a revenue generator intended to fund portions of a proposed Oklahoma City - Tulsa commuter rail service.

       In 2010 Passenger Rail Oklahoma sought supportive Oklahoma legislators, most importantly Representative Richard Morrissette, to extend passenger rail service between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. A meeting was held with IPH CEO Ed Ellis and several supportive legislators to work on an Oklahoma state statute that requires the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) to connect "stations in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties with points on the national passenger rail system."

       In February 2014 three demonstration trips were operated between Sapulpa and Midwest City to test demand. The trips sold out in ten days and were wildly successful. A brochure was put together to market the "false start" of the Eastern Flyer service.

       During the months of November and December (2014-present), IPH operates the Polar Express train. The first two years it was operated out of Bristow. However, BNSF Railway convinced the Stillwater Central Railroad to move the operation to Stillwater (Stillwater NewsPress) because of potential freight interference.

       The Eastern Flyer concept is not dead but delayed. The reasons are numerous but Stillwater Central Railroad completed track improvements that will allow Class-III 60-mph passenger trains to run on the route between Midwest City and Sapulpa mid-2016. Oklahoma City and Tulsa are investigating ways to extend the route to the downtown areas. Be prepared for an active 2017.

Eastern Flyer Polar Express Tickets

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Pace Receives Amtrak Recognition
October 2, 2016

       Sal Pace, Pueblo County Commissioner, has received Amtrak's 2016 President’s Service and Safety Award. This honor recognizes Pace’s leadership in saving the Southwest Chief from discontinuance through securing local, Amtrak, BNSF Railway, state and federal TIGER grant funding.

Challenge to Wichita Councilor Meitzner
August 8, 2016

Evan Stair
President, Passenger Rail Oklahoma

       In November 2010 I traveled back to Oklahoma through freezing rain following a presentation at the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. No thanks for my efforts, Wichita City Councilor Pete Meitzner, also in attendance critiqued my presentation mid-stream:

       "Know your audience. It should be the Kansas-Oklahoma-Texas Corridor!" This followed my use of the term Texas-Oklahoma-Kansas (TOK) corridor, a reference to Heartland Flyer expansion.

       My response was, "Where did this project start!" referencing the fact the Heartland Flyer was already running in Texas and Oklahoma.

       Rumor has it in 2014 Meitzner again argued with a now defunct Wichita passenger rail club. This club pleaded with Meitzner to dedicate more than a couple thousand dollars in seed funding for a federal TIGER Grant program request. Wichita's 2014 request was for a federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study grant covering the TOK corridor. NEPA studies are required to qualify for federal transportation capital grants.

        Fortunately, Garden City beat Wichita in 2014. Garden City seeded more funding for an urgent Southwest Chief Track Improvement project and thus secured the TIGER grant. The Federal Railroad Administration grant kept the Southwest Chief in operation and thus preserved a future possibility the Heartland Flyer would one day connect with the Southwest Chief in Newton.

        Meitzner seems to summarily reject advocacy advice, but his recent foray shows he may be learning on his own. Meitzner was on hand in Newton Thursday when Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman disembarked from an Amtrak special for a few minutes to discuss Southwest Chief preservation and Heartland Flyer expansion. The expansion project would dramatically benefit both trains.

       Meitzner will apparently attempt to bypass the lengthy federal process and simply ask Amtrak what it will take to fill a 197-mile service gap between Oklahoma City and Newton. Meitzner was quoted in the Wichita Eagle on Thursday:

       "He said the city will send an application for service to Amtrak, which will then calculate how much local and/or state funding would be needed for track improvements and operational support to bring full passenger rail service to Wichita. Meitzner said Boardman’s visit to Kansas is, 'another positive step as we’re trying to close this gap.'"

       We wish the councilor success. Perhaps Meitzner should compare notes with a real master negotiator: Sal Pace, Southwest Chief Commissioner from Colorado. You see, Garden City is a part of Pace's multi-state organization that also secured 2015 TIGER funding for the Southwest Chief track rehabilitation project through a City of La Junta, Colorado application.

       Pace, also a Pueblo County Commissioner somehow bypassed federal requirements to garner millions in federal dollars for Southwest Chief route right-of-way improvements. Perhaps Meitzner, who apparently finds advocacy organizations distasteful, should also compare notes with Pace to identify ways around draconian Amtrak/ federal processes and reduce BNSF Railway's $156 million requirement for right of way improvements. This amount was discussed within Amtrak's 2010 Kansas Study as requested by the Kansas Department of Transportation.

       The challenge is on. Can Meitzner become a master negotiator like Pace and finally expand Heartland Flyer service where so many others have failed? Will Wichita get passenger rail service before Tulsa? We have always encouraged a friendly competition between the largest city in Kansas and the second largest in Oklahoma. So how about it Pete? Are you up to the challenge?

       Those in Kansas who want to encourage Councilor Meitzner should contact him at (316) 268-4331 or e-mail at pmeitzner@wichita.gov.

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Thruway Bus – Review
June 14, 2016

       About the Bus. A new Thruway Bus connects the Heartland Flyer, Wichita, and Southwest Chief routes. The route operates between Oklahoma City and Newton, Kansas with one intermediate stop in Wichita. We tried the new service as a part of a Las Vegas, New Mexico round trip last weekend.

       Test Run. We departed Friday evening on the Heartland Flyer, arriving six minutes late into Oklahoma City at 9:29 PM. The bus had not arrived. This was a bit disappointing as we were ready to get into an air-conditioned space due to the muggy evening. Passengers could wait in the under-track concourse without air conditioning or wait outside in the little breeze that was available.

       To Newton. The Village Tours charter bus arrived next to the sidewalk at 100 SE EK Gaylord at 10:30 PM. We were glad to get out of the heat. We left on-time at 10:40 PM and were on-time to catch a 25 minute late train 3, the Southwest Chief at 3:10 AM. We arrived in Las Vegas, New Mexico at 12:38 PM, 30 minutes late. We were just enough late to catch lunch on the train (included with a sleeping accommodation).

       To Oklahoma City. The return trip was uneventful. Train 4, the Southwest Chief was 19 minutes late into Las Vegas at 3:22 PM and 25 minutes late into Newton at 3:20 AM. You must check in with the Amtrak agent when you arrive. They want to ensure you make your bus connection. We boarded the bus for a 4:00 AM on-time departure. Everything worked smoothly from that point. The bus arrived with about an hour to spare for the on-time departure of the Heartland Flyer. Again, you can wait inside the Oklahoma City Santa Fe depot concourse or outside.

       What If? Missed Connections. I asked the Village Tours driver what happens if a bus connection is missed due to a late train. This almost happened Sunday night when the Heartland Flyer arrived in Oklahoma City at 11:17 PM, 1 hour and 54 minutes late. As it turns out this is handled on a case-by-case basis. The bus can wait an additional 30 minutes. Connecting train passengers on a very late train will likely be placed on a Greyhound bus. For example, a late Southwest Chief arrival that misses the 4:30 am bus departure will be placed on Greyhound. Still, the bus can wait longer if there are no passengers connecting with the Heartland Flyer. There are too many scenarios to list here.

       Bus Amenities. Here is a rundown of the 54 seat bus. The bus is positioned in Oklahoma City for the beginning of its round trip. WiFi is available. Leg room is somewhere between coach in a commercial airliner and an Amtrak coach. I am 6’0” so I could have used a bit more but the reclining seat helps. The temperature was nice and cool. If you are cold natured bring a blanket. A pillow is essential because the headrest is not quite enough. Bring something to drink in the event you get thirsty. Baggage is handled on the bus.

       Waiting Area. If the heat is oppressive in Oklahoma City, walk over to the hotel catty-corner to station and wait in the lobby. I will do this next time if I cannot find a breeze. Hopefully, I do not get chased off. I am also going to see if the city will provide some fans at the waiting area until the Santa Fe depot project is complete.

       Patronage. Twelve passengers were on our trip Friday to Newton and eight for the return Monday. Greater than anticipated ridership has surprised Amtrak and the carrier. Passenger Rail Oklahoma could have told them a long time ago, we need more than a bus, a train would make things so much better.

ODOT/ TxDOT Heartland Flyer RFQ Released
June 8, 2016

    Heartland Flyer RFQ Summary. Passenger Rail Oklahoma has learned a group of service providers, including Amtrak, Iowa Pacific Holdings (IPH), Corridor Capital, Herzog Transit, Keolis, and Veolia-Transdev were mailed a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) June 1, 2016. This preliminary investigative process may lead to an unbundling of the sole-source Amtrak Heartland Flyer contract established in 1999. IPH is already serving as a provider in Indiana with the unbundled Amtrak Hoosier State service. This could eventually lead to a seamless Tulsa-Oklahoma City-Fort Worth service and long anticipated Kansas expansion.

    Why an RFQ? Rapidly increasing Amtrak costs and 2016 Oklahoma legislative budget actions necessitated the move. Last month the Oklahoma Legislature swept clean a $5 million revolving fund reserve, which in past years had been used to cushion Heartland Flyer costs. Amtrak’s currently charges Oklahoma $3.7 million while the state appropriates just $2.85 million. The $850,000 deficit necessitated this action.

    Cafeteria Plan in RFQ. ODOT/ TxDOT have proposed a cafeteria plan. Up for consideration are the following offerings:

        -Train Crews
        -Rolling Stock
        -Train Maintenance
        -On-Board Food and Beverage

    RFQ Requirements-Process. Providers must include specific comments regarding several aspects of service. These include proposed liability coverage/ insurance and labor relations. Details of their working relationship with host railroads (BNSF Railway and Amtrak) must also be included. The informal process is investigative in nature. It may or may not lead to a Request for Proposal (RFP). An RFQ timeline was provided in the letter:

The informal process is investigative in nature. It may or may not lead to a Request for Proposal (RFP). An RFQ timeline was provided in the letter:

        1. Provider questions due by Noon June 8
        2. Response to Providers Questions due by 4:00 PM June 13
        3. Providers submissions due by Noon June 22

    Goals. ODOT/ TxDOT indicated in the release a goal of increasing train service to twice daily. Passenger Rail Oklahoma believes capital cost requirements to add the second frequency will be prohibitive. However, the investigative process will likely lead to some surprises. There is hope Amtrak will work more effectively to bring capital requirements for a second frequency and Kansas expansion in line with reality based upon this action.

    Summary. Passenger Rail Oklahoma believes the RFQ will serve notice to Amtrak. States are becoming impatient with what has become a half-complete project (stub end Heartland Flyer, terminating in Oklahoma City). Expansions to Tulsa and into Kansas are long overdue. Amtrak's monopoly on state supplemental services has generated an anti- competitive dam that when broken, will hopefully result in service expansion nationwide.

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contact Evan Stair at EvanStair@PassengerRailOK.org

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