Archive of Passenger Rail News and Commentary

September 15, 2014
Heartland Flyer Service Threatened
Amtrak Cost May Double

In an exclusive release, Texas Rail Advocates (TRA) reported Heartland Flyer costs could double over the next few years. TRA also reported that Amtrak's proposed increase triggered a Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Request for Information (RFI) Request for Information (RFI) process. RFI submissions were due August 18. TRA indicated that from five to eight carriers responded to the request. The announcement, including the questionnaire, are linked here:

RFI Announcement:
RFI Questionnaire:

The RFI included a survey of carriers, intended to provide TxDOT and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) with data necessary to make tough fiscal and operational decisions. Texas and Oklahoma have evenly split contractual costs since 2006. Amtrak has indicated they desire to incrementally increase shared Heartland Flyer costs to as high as $8 million annually. The RFI scope also requested that carriers provide information regarding increased levels of onboard service such as WiFi and proposals for service expansion.

• Provide an efficient, safe, and cost effective alternative to personal vehicular and air travel,
• Support future growth of intercity passenger transportation services in the Heartland Flyer corridor and beyond,
• Operate an efficient, high-quality intercity passenger transportation service that will help minimize the need for state subsidies,
• Provide flexibility for TxDOT and ODOT to manage service amenities and business costs,
• Adequately address community and environmental impacts from implementation, operation, and continuation of the service, and
• Integrate with local roadway, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian transportation networks.

Oklahoma appropriates just $2.85 million annually for the Heartland Flyer. The 2014 contract allows Amtrak to charge Oklahoma a maximum of $2.95 million. A $4 million cost for Oklahoma would jeopardize the train's operation.

September 15, 2014
Polar Express Offered By Iowa Pacific Holdings

Passenger rail returns to the Sooner Subdivision on 27 dates in November and December. The future operator of the Eastern Flyer, Iowa Pacific Holdings, is bringing a set of passenger equipment to Bristow, Oklahoma to celebrate the Christmas Season. The Polar Express trains are scheduled for departures at 2:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., and 8:00 p.m. depending upon the day of operation. The train rides will last for about an hour. For more information please check the Polar Express page:

Polar Express Webpage
Eastern Flyer :: Polar Express Webpage

July 19, 2014
Eastern Flyer Pilot Project Planned
Stillwater Central Wins Bid Process

-Tentative Month of Start is November 2014
-Six Month Pilot Project
-Two Times Daily Service

In May the Stillwater Central Railroad (SWLC) won a bid to acquire a 97.5-mile rail line stretching between Midwest City and Sapulpa. This line has been leased by the SWLC from the state of Oklahoma since 1998. Despite public pleas, the Oklahoma Transportation Commission (OTC) voted 8-0 to sell the railroad. Property closing is anticipated by July 31. To be eligible for consideration, all bidders were required to include a six month passenger rail pilot project trial description within their bid package.

The SWLC bid package, included intent to partner with Iowa Pacific Holdings to operate two daily Eastern Flyer passenger rail frequencies. According to the plan, trains will operate only between Sapulpa and Midwest City. Connecting motorcoach service will fill gaps at the rail terminals. From Sapulpa, motorcoach service will reach Bartlesville, The University of Tulsa, and Tulsa International airport. From the Midwest City connecting motorcoaches will reach Norman (The University of Oklahoma), Will Rogers World Airport and the state capitol.

Planning is expected to begin following property closing. While the bid package mentioned a November 2014 start, an Iowa Pacific official cautioned that the project design and startup date are highly tentative. Actual service could be deployed differently than listed in the bid package and possibly at a later date.

This is welcome news for many passenger rail supporters who see challenges to successful deployment. Passenger Rail Oklahoma hopes Iowa Pacific and SWLC are improving the plan. Our desire is to see the following:

1) Negotiation with the BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad to gain Oklahoma City Santa Fe depot access
2) Legally verify that Iowa Pacific can operate into downtown Tulsa
3) Add a frequency to connect with the Heartland Flyer in Oklahoma City
4) Improve track to a condition allowing 60-mph passenger trains prior to startup, thus cutting travel times

While not mentioned in the bid package, fares are expected to be in the $30 round trip range. This was mentioned earlier this year by Iowa Pacific on KTOK radio.

July 20, 2014
Morning Coffee :: Raton Pass - A National Park?

The photo you see here is of John Muir. Muir was instrumental in National Park system development during the mid-19th Century. His vision halted Manifest Destiny at important locations across the country. We now know these as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Everglades. The arched entry to Yellowstone includes the inscription, "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People." Muir's undying love for nature and the people echoes into the 21st Century. What can we learn from Muir’s vision today?

I took Amtrak's Pioneer in 1991. I gazed through the window in wonder at human achievement in an era before massive earth moving equipment. Holes were blasted in mountains creating a myriad of tunnels, including the herculean Moffat Tunnel. Mountain debris were hauled by mules to fill canyons. Tie-by-tie, rail-by-rail, bridge-by-bridge, the railroad reached from Denver, through the Front Range mountains to Salt Lake City; then to the Columbia River in Washington and on to the Pacific Ocean at Portland.

The slight scar a railroad places on the landscape still allows people to benefit and enjoy nature’s beauty. In fact a moving train enhances the experience. One can take in scenery, as epic as any block-buster Hollywood motion picture. The view is certainly more wholesome. It transforms minute-by-minute from plains to hills; to mountains and canyons; then to deserts through small towns and big cities. While I rode the Pioneer, I knew of Amtrak's perpetual financial difficulties. I wondered if the Pioneer and its railroad should somehow be operated and protected by the National Parks Service. I still see this nearly a quarter-century later.

The route between Salt Lake City and the south bank of the Columbia River were discontinued in 1997. A similar discontinuance could soon be this decades’ sacrifice to the corporate money gods. The Santa Fe Trail, Raton Pass, Apache Canyon, Gloreitta Pass, the western Kansas prairie, and Shoemaker Canyon could soon be off limits to the people, their children, and grandchildren.

This, the route of the Southwest Chief, is soaked in history. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (AT&SF) railroad fought a minor guns-and-blood war with the Denver and Rio Grande Western (D&RGW) railroad over who would finally build the railroad through Raton Pass. The likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Pearl Bailey, and Lucy & Desi used the Super Chief, “Train of the Stars” between Chicago and Los Angeles on this line.

Squabbles over public money will always be with us. However, our national rail system and passenger trains are as irreplaceable. In many respects they allow us to enjoy our national parks, both by traveling to them and seeing our great nation from a window while enjoying dinner in the diner. If this is truly a vision shared by the people, the loss of the Southwest Chief would be a tragedy echoing through history just like the loss of the Pioneer.

Another National Park, Mesa Verde, was the first National Park established to preserve man-made structures. So, the precedent has been set. To me the long stretches of railroad in the American West remind me of Mesa Verde. Let’s start saving railroads.

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