Saturday, June 13, 2009

Heartland Flyer At Age 10

As advertised in the Oklahoman on June 12 and in the Norman Transcript on the same date, about 40 or so people were on hand to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Heartland Flyer at the Santa Fe Station early Saturday morning on June 13, 2009.

I was one of those in attendance and this article presents the photographs taken on that great day. Small versions of many of those pics are contained in the above flash file — I've used the Andrews Sisters' Chatanooga Choo Choo as the background music since it's kind of a universal train song and we don't have such a song about Oklahoma City trains, as far as I'm aware.

It is recalled that, after a rich 90-year history with passenger trains dating to the April 22, 1889 Land Run, all passenger train service to and from Oklahoma City (and Oklahoma, for that matter) ended in 1979. Through the efforts of many, not the least being those of Dean Schirf, corporate secretary of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, passenger rail service returned to Oklahoma City on June 14, 1999, with the inaugural run of the Heartland Flyer to and from Ft. Worth, Texas.

Jump To Quick Ft. Worth Trip
Jump To Event Photos
Jump To The Future

The Heartland Flyer is a cooperative effort of the State of Oklahoma, State of Texas, Amtrak, and the Burlington Northern Railway whose tracks are used in the Oklahoma City to Ft. Worth route, and both Texas and Oklahoma pony up $2 million annually to Amtrak to subsidize the daily round trip route and make it possible. The Heartland Flyer website shows the stops and other connections possible from Ft. Worth in the drawing below:

As noted in the Heartland Flyer's history page, when reservations started being taken in May 1999 the route was simply called, "The New Train," but that got changed when Senator Don Nickles sponsored a naming contest among Oklahoma children — the winner was "Heartland Flyer," submitted by 11-year-old Katie Moore. Katie, from Del City, made the Oklahoman's front page on June 9, 1999:

But, would the Heartland Flyer survive? According to the Heartland Flyer's history page, Amtrak officials opined that the route would need around 23,000 passengers in that first year to be considered successful — year-end figures showed that 71,400 passengers had made the trip.

According to a press release by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation,
Approaching the 10th anniversary of the service, the trains have carried more than 625,000 passengers, with the support of the Heartland Flyer Coalition, representing the communities along the 206-mile route.
The same press release quotes Joseph Yannuzzi, Amtrak General Superintendent, Southwest Division, as saying,
This service has exceeded its ridership expectations from the day it started. Even this fiscal year, despite all the economic conditions, ridership on the Heartland Flyer from last October through last month is within about 300 passengers of last year's record pace.
So, I guess that we're doing OK, Oklahoma City!

Right now through June 30, a special promotional fare is available — $20 one-way per adult ($40 round-trip)— kids prices are lower. Call 800-USA-RAIL (800-872-724l) to make reservations.

Day or Overnight Trip To Ft. Worth. If for no other reason, it would be a fun day-or-overnight trip just to enjoy downtown Ft. Worth which boasts a sparkling and fun downtown and Sundance Square not unlike Oklahoma City and Bricktown — though Ft.Worth's are generally more upscale than our local counterparts. If you're spending the night, there are plenty of good downtown hotels but if you prefer a charming and well-done bed-and-breakfast, I easily recommend The Texas Whitehouse to you which is about 3 miles southwesterly from the rail depot — they will pick you up at the depot and return you downtown, no charge (at least, they did a few years ago), and the food and quarters were outstanding when I was there.

A Starter Map — click map for larger

The Amtrak depot, Sundance Square (the salmon colored area), Bass Performance Hall, Water Gardens, Riata Restaurant, Convention Center, and Water Gardens are marked or highlighted.

Ft. Worth Intermodal Transportation Center

Ft. Worth Water Gardens

A Part of Sundance Square

Reata Restaurant is my recommendation for at least one meal, even though dinner prices are on the high side (probably similar to Nonna's) but lunch is considerably more affordable. The 4-story restaurant is modeled on the theme of the movie Giant and it's fun just walking around the place; it has a rooftop eating area; the food is great. It is the building with the copper awning, lower left, and is marked in the map below.

Reservations are recommended.

The Riata At Night (credit Kevin Buchanan)

Bass Performance Hall

According to Ft. Worth's official city website, you can ride "Molly The Trolley" while getting around downtown ...

Free trolley service runs on the “Downtown Get Around” route every day from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. through Aug. 22.
The project is a trial program sponsored and paid for by the downtown hotels, the Fort Worth Transportation Authority and Downtown Fort Worth Inc. They appear to be the same trolleys we have in use here.

Oh, and by the way, FREE parking lots and garages abound in the Sundance Square area — hint hint to OKC! According to Ft. Worth's Visitors Bureau, Ft. Worth calls itself "The City of Cowboys & Culture." Hmmm ... sounds familiar!

Event Photographs. OK, OK, enough of the Ft. Worth plug. Here are the photos from yesterday's celebration in Oklahoma City. Click on any image for a 1024 px wide view.

Dean Schirf By The Event Poster

A Closeup of Dean's 10-year Old Shirt

Inside Santa Fe Station

Random Shots Before The Speeches

Hmmm ... It Looks Like Brillo-Time To Me

Gary Ridley, Master of Ceremonies,
Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation, Speaks

Joe Kyle, Rail Programs Division Manager, ODOT

A Burlington Northern Train Passes By,
Toots at Mr. Kyle's Remarks
(Similar to a USAF Fly-Over, I Guess)

Back To The Speeches ...

Jennifer Moczygemba, Originally From Enid,
Multimodal Section Director, Transportation & Programming Division, TX DOT

Richard Phelps
Amtrak Vice President of Transportation

Time For The Paper-Breaking Ceremony Arrives

Oops! Premature Paper-Break
The Paper Must Have Come From Texas

Not To Worry — Okie Enginuity (wink wink) Wins Again!

That Paper's Not So Tough!
The Heartland Flyer Get Underway

Afterward, people hung around for a while, savoring the morning's activities, thinking and talking about trains. Here, Dean Schirf, Corporate Secretary of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, is interviewed by Channel 9 News ...

And well he should be. If Dean did not lead the fight to get Amtrak service to Oklahoma City back in the 1990s, he was certainly one of the principal locomotives who did. See my Trains 3 article for much more about that.

Sooo ... when the 1st Heartland Flyer paper-breaking ceremony was had way back on June 13, 1999, Dean was the guy at the left holding the banner ...

Dean At The Heartland Flyer's 1st Anniversary
In A Demonstration Train Dining Car

After 31 years with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, Dean is retiring this month, on June 24.

He Hasn't Aged A Bit

Thanks, Dean Schirf, For All You Did In Making Passenger Trains Again Possible
In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma!

Future Expansion of the Heartland Flyer. Will the Heartland Flyer expand to include routes to (a) Kansas City and/or (b) Tulsa & St. Louis? These kinds of questions have been going round and round for many years and were discussed earlier in Trains Part II. Here, I'll take a brief fresh look at the questions since the August 2007 Trains II article was written.

To Tulsa. In the main, the Tulsa route expansion has been said to be (a) too expensive (given that the existing rail tracks between the cities are dilapidated or outmoded) and (b) too slow, i.e., connecting the cities by rail wouldn't shorten transportation time between the cities even if the rail alternative existed.

Keep in mind that, in this context, the 90-mile or so route would unlikely be "high speed" ala European 125 m.p.h. high-speed rail speeds or the faster 150 m.p.h. Amtrak high-speed standard. Even the Texas part of the existing Heartland Flyer route hasn't been upgraded like the Oklahoma part has — on the Oklahoma side, the train can clip along at 79 m.p.h. but it must slow to 59 m.p.h. when it hits the Texas border. The legal speed limit on the turnpike connecting Oklahoma City and Tulsa is 75 m.p.h. and we all know that you can go at least a little faster without getting smashed by the O.H.P.! The existing rail lines between Oklahoma City and Tulsa are much worse than those from the Texas border to Ft. Worth. Sooo ... where's the gain for such a route? The gain would have to come from an extension of the route beyond Tulsa to, say, St. Louis or Kansas City and that's a worthwhile factor and consideration. That said, I'm not aware that a Missouri initiative, like that described in the Kansas activity, below, has come to exist, and I don't sense that momentum exists for building for such a route within Oklahoma to the extent that the Newton/Wichita/Kansas City route does.

To Kansas City. The potential for this expansion may well be different. For at least two years now, Kansas and Amtrak have been seriously looking at an extension from Oklahoma City to Newton, a historic north/south east/west rail intersection, to Wichita, and on to Kansas City. As recently as when this June 12, 2009, Kansas City Tribune article was written, the Kansas City link seemed to be gaining momentum. Note: the link just made works today but I don't know how long it will, so I'll quote the article verbatim below.
Amtrak Heartland Flyer Would Link KC-Ok. City

An Amtrak study on a passenger rail link that would connect Oklahoma City and Kansas City’s Union Station is still on track and half way home. ¶ The study is looking at extending the Heartland Flyer which goes between Fort Worth, Texas, and Oklahoma City, to Newton, Kan. Newton is north of Wichita but on the east-west Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline. The BNSF mainline is also the route used by the Southwest Chief passenger train which runs between Chicago and Los Angeles through Kansas City.

“It certainly makes a lot of sense to look at connecting Oklahoma City and the Southwest Chief,” said Ron Kaufman, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Transportation.

KDOT has contributed $200,000 to the study. Kaufman recently authored an update on rail passenger travel in Kansas including the Heartland Flyer study. ¶ “There’s a lot of interest in it,” he said.

Amtrak has said the study should be done by the end of the year, he said. It would be handy to have the study in hand by November, he said. ¶ “We would certainly want the time to be able to look over the study and prepare our recommendations to the 2010 Legislature,” Kaufman said.

The most likely route for the extension would use BNSF tracks between Oklahoma City and Newton. The study would examine the rails, how much money it would take to update and maintain the rail network and how much it would cost to operate the passenger trains.

Before KDOT makes any recommendations to legislators, the agency needs to know the costs because it’s virtually certain that the state would have to subsidize the route, Kaufman said. ¶ “We know there will be state subsidies,” he said. “We need to know how much that would be.” ¶ Legislators would have the final say on subsidies, he said. ¶ However, legislators have expressed strong interest in the proposed link, he said.

The Kansas Senate passed a “concurrent resolution” and the Kansas House drafted but didn’t act on its own concurrent resolution that urged KDOT to seek economic stimulus money to expand passenger rail service and to include passenger rail in any new transportation plans.

Although the legislators endorsed the proposal, they didn’t appropriate any money for it. Without the money, KDOT can’t apply for grants that would have the effect of committing the state to provide subsidies for passenger rail service, he said.

In the meantime, KDOT plans to apply for $10 million in federal economic stimulus grants to upgrade the highway-rail crossing-signal timing between Newton and the state line. Upgrading the timing signals would allow passenger trains to travel at speeds of 79 miles an hour on the track. Currently, the signal timing along the route is set for slower freight trains. Upgrading the signals will be essential for crossing safety if the track is to be used for passenger trains, according to Kaufman.

The economic stimulus grants don’t require the states to put up matching money and they don’t require a statewide or passenger rail plan, he said. ¶ The state needs to have a passenger rail plan to be able to apply for other federal passenger rail grants. ¶ KDOT will begin updating its state rail plan in July, Kaufman said. The state rail plan will include a section on passenger rail and the Amtrak study is likely to be incorporated in it, he said.
Also, see the Northern Flyer Alliance webpage for more and for those in Oklahoma and Kansas which have gone on record favoring the route.

So, between 2007 and 2009, Kansas and Amtrak have been moving forward. Nothing's done, of course, but at least the idea is progressing.

High Speed Rail. This topic sort of dove-tails into the last. President Obama's initiative with high speed rail is yet another new element since 2007. The "South Central High Speed Rail Corridor" has been around for several years, perhaps since as early as 1993 and certainly by the year 2000, and it, too, was mentioned in the August 2007 Trains II article. The route is shown below, from the Federal Railroad Administration website:

Thing is, that "route" has been sitting on the shelf since, as I said, at least by the year 2000. What's new is that the Obama administration, as part of its economic stimulus plan, seems to be saying, "OK, let's give serious thought about doing such a thing." This would, of course, require that the states involved "buy in" to such a plan, and that is less than certain at this point. We're talking "real" high-speed rail here, as in 125 m.p.h. or faster.

After the corridor was announced years earlier, an October 2000 Journal Record article said, in part:
Oklahoma awaits high-speed rail corridor designation
The Journal Record, Oct 31, 2000

It's just a matter of time now, before Oklahoma residents can hop a passenger train for a jaunt to just about anywhere on the Amtrak system.

The track running from Tulsa through Oklahoma City and Fort Worth to San Antonio has been designated as a high-speed rail corridor by the Federal Railway Administration.
That was then, and this is now. Almost 9 years passed by since the above article was written. "Now" is that the President is making a push for those old drawing-board high-speed routes to be opted for, much as was was done in FDR's Works Projects Administration days and it has been reported that $8 Billion has been devoted to this purpose.

Anyone's guess is good as another's as to whether the high-speed project will ever come to pass. My guess is that, Yes, it will, but that, no, it won't until after rigor mortis has long set into this body of mine. I'll be 66 in 2 weeks. Rather than unduly politicize this article (which I would really, really, and earnestly prefer to do), let me just say that, after I am dust, I have no prediction of the mindset of those who will then dominate the Oklahoma Legislature as they did during the recent "State Rock Song" national embarrassment which exposed our state to national and well-deserved ridicule, but for Governor Henry who stepped in and saved the day. Chances for Obama's high-speed corridor landing on the ground in Oklahoma while those who voted to bash the Flaming Lips remain in office are, I think, zero. Our Legislature is not putting a progressive face forward, to say the least. But, that's just me thinking out loud. I'd be glad to be proven wrong.

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Mike said...

Another great post. I love the trains! Also, people have no idea what Ft. Worth has to offer. It's a great city with fun venues all over and train is a GREAT way to get there! Thanks again, Doug, for an excellent piece.

Doug Dawg said...

You're welcome, Mike, and thanks for the nice comment.

Anonymous said...

Doug, thanks for taking the time to come to the station Saturday to cover the 10th anniv of the Heartland Flyer. I think a little bit too much of me in the blog but am so grateful for the information, research and detail on the train itself. I especially like the way you have displayed the information and highligted the features of the Flyer. You are much appreciated Doug and I would like to say to those who view your blog, that it is the best site I have seen relative to what was and what is making Oklahoma City a great place to live, work, play, worship and visit!! Again thanks Doug and keep up the great work.

Doug Dawg said...

Thanks, anon!

In this instance, I happen to know that the comment was posted by none other than Dean Schirf. When I put the article together, I KNEW that he wouldn't like the attention I've given him in the article — he is not one to draw attention to himself or take credit for his accomplishments, which, of course, is exactly why it was incumbent on ME to do so!

Hoo-ahh, and thanks again, Dean!