June 14, 1999 was the first run of the Oklahoma state supported Heartland Flyer, a daily train that made a round-trip between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas. It ended a twenty year drought of passenger rail service in that corridor and carried over 71,000 passengers in the first year, breaking all projection records.
Zoom ahead to fiscal year 2014 figures and the Flyer carried about 77,000 passengers between Fort Worth, Gainesville and a handful of Oklahoma cities that are devoid of other surface transportation options. Not a big increase but a sure and steady provider for citizens in the corridor. Matter of fact if you google "Bus Fort Worth to Oklahoma City" or "Bus Fort Worth to Gainesville, Texas" there is no direct service unless you travel to Dallas and transfer buses. The Heartland Flyer is the only direct mode of transportation shown. One train in the evening from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City and a return trip in the morning back to the Lone Star state.
In the intervening years the Texas Department of Transportation has correctly bellied up and now funds the service jointly with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. Texas' share of expenses is pegged at about $2.5 million a year. According to a 2010 study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, about $18 million was generated in defined economic benefits to cities and towns in Oklahoma and Texas from the train over a 12 month period. That includes lodging, meals, shopping, and entertainment on passenger trips. A somewhat decent return on investment.
The TTI study showed that 39,000 vehicle trips on I-35 were not needed because of the Heartland Flyer. Our paper napkin pencil and paper figures shows there was an average of 8 deaths PER HIGHWAY MILE and 156 serious injuries PER HIGHWAY MILE on I-35, extrapolated from 2012 accident statistics on the corridor. There were no accident-caused passenger deaths on board the Heartland Flyer. It's a safer way to travel.
Realize that with only one train a day in each direction it is not conducive for the business traveler or for day-trippers. An additional frequency or two each day would give you time to conduct business in each city along the route and remove even more vehicles from the I-35 corridor, preventing more accidents and saving more road wear and tear.
Naysayers will carp that train service must be profitable and must not be subsidized. That's a false observation since taxes at the gas pump only pay for about 50% of highway costs, heavy intercity buses don't pay a fair share of road use costs (many are registered out of state) and we subsidize airports and air traffic controllers. Every form of transportation has some subsidy, direct or indirect. So now, let's get back to what needs to be done.
There are a number of Texas legislators and even some within TxDOT that would sooner kill passenger rail service than even try to experiment with any form of expansion. We need a vision for all forms of transportation in Texas. We must think forward to the next 20-30-40 years. Asphalt and concrete will not solve all of our transportation needs. With a leaps and bounds growing business friendly climate like Texas we need multi-modal choices.
Amtrak runs the service on behalf of the two states. While their on board service has been friendly and efficient and the seats are as wide and comfortable as a first class airline, the train is stagnating. The train cars are old, not modern and sleek. There is no Wi-Fi service like buses provide. Cafe food service on board needs to be improved for regional tastes. A careful study needs to be done to see if Amtrak is delivering the best ride for the buck the states pay. Rail advocate Howard Harding states that "Amtrak's ancient, outmoded and impossible-to-audit accounting process obscures how Amtrak allocates its overhead expenses among its trains and routes. These include, in part, expenses for the reservation system, corporate headquarters, maintenance facilities and stations served by multiple trains."
Here's what TxDOT and ODOT need to do now: Form a task force to implement a second and/or third daily frequency on the Heartland Flyer. Search for passenger train cars that are modern and comfortable. Do a better job of marketing the train. Most people don't know there is a better way to travel other than in a car. Offer improved services such as Wi-Fi and business class service to gain additional revenue and attract more riders. Hold Amtrak, the current service provider, accountable for every dollar it costs to run the service and if necessary, look to other outside rail sources. Now that's it's 16 years old, it's time for the Heartland Flyer to grow up.