While the north segment of the daily Heartland Flyer is expanding and expects ridership gains, Oklahoma legislators are talking about dismantling or cutting back the popular train on the southern end between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth.
With Oklahoma’s state budget looking bleak Amtrak's rail service is under the gun like everything else. The train is jointly sponsored by the Oklahoma and Texas Department of Transportation and returns a lot of sales tax revenue back to both states from the yearly grant to operate the service.
While the legislators north of the Red River ponder budgets, Amtrak just announced that for the first time since 1979 passengers who want to travel northbound from Fort Worth on the Heartland Flyer to the Oklahoma City station can now connect to an Amtrak Thruway bus service to Wichita and Newton, Kansas.
The new service closes the gap between Amtrak trains #3 and #4, the Southwest Chief service at Newton Kansas, and the ODOT/TXDOT partnered state Heartland Flyer service. It enables through travel on this route for the first time since the Lone Star named-train was discontinued in 1979. The motor coach connection opens up a new set of city pairs for travel including Kansas City as well as other Amtrak stops in Kansas, Iowa and Northern Illinois on the eastbound line. Going west, passengers will be able to be ticketed to stops in Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and northern Arizona. A list of stations served by the Southwest Chief is available here.
The addition of the bus bridge between the two trains comes at a good time. The rail line that runs into Western Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico was going to be downgraded for slower speeds. BNSF Railway, the host railroad for the Southwest Chief, did not have a need to maintain the route for higher speed trains. Cities and towns banded together to make sure that their rural communities were still going to be served by arranging for local, state and federal funding to keep the rail line in a state of good repair.
Meanwhile back at the Oklahoma capitol, State Sen. Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa, said that with such a large budget shortfall, the state should reconsider whether to subsidize the train at all, which would put an end to the 15 years of passenger service. Oklahoma pays for its share from income tax and motor fuel tax allocations.
About 77,000 people rode the Heartland Flyer last year. The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is negotiating with Amtrak for a second train to run opposite of the current schedule, which would dramatically increase ridership.
ODOT Rail Division spokesperson Craig Moody indicated that if passenger rail service was discontinued it would be extremely hard to negotiate with BNSF Railway, the host freight rail company, to return the Heartland Flyer to service.
Add to the mix are plans to run a six-month trial service called the Eastern Flyer between Tulsa and Oklahoma City by 2019. That passenger rail service would run on what is called the "Sooner Subdivision" and is a joint operation between short line freight railroad operator Watco Companies and a private passenger rail operator Iowa Pacific. Without connections at Oklahoma City, passenger service would probably suffer, according to an industry source.
[caption id="attachment_1955" align="alignnone" width="300"] This chart comes from the 2010 Texas Transportation Institute Study, "Measuring the Benefits of Intercity Passenger Rail Service: A Study of the Heartland Flyer Corridor."[/caption]