Tahlequah Daily Press


January 22, 2014

Excursion train success a sign we need more rails

TAHLEQUAH — If the results of a pilot program testing the viability of excursion train service in Oklahoma are any indication, Okies are more than ready to ride the rails again.

In late December, Iowa Pacific announced it would be sponsoring three excursion train trips, Feb. 9, 15 and 23, between Sapulpa and the Oklahoma City area. All 900 tickets are already sold out.

If nothing else, the eager reception this “test project” received has made fools of the high-ups in Oklahoma government who want to sell off the rail lines. Hello? Is anybody listening?

The Eastern Flyer, as it is being dubbed, is a luxury tourist train. It will leave Sapulpa those days at 8:30 a.m. and take passengers to the Oklahoma City metro area, where they’ll be transported by motorcoach to Bricktown for shopping, dining and entertainment, or a Thunder basketball game – or for those more attracted to Oklahoma history, to the National Cowboy and Western Hall of Fame.

The passengers will be hauled by three retro-style rail cars, pulled by a Stillwater Central engine. And during the trip, they’ll be able to dine in a car with a glass dome roof, or choose from other amenities.

Despite the price tag ranging from $64 to $249, all 300 tickets for each excursion have been snapped up. That’s not cheap, by Amtrak standards; The Heartland Flyer takes its passengers from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth and back for $56 (or less, with AAA or other discounts).

The Heartland Flyer service was started in 1999 as a cooperative agreement between Amtrak and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, ending a 20-year dearth of passenger rail service in this state. The heroes of this venture were then-Sen. Don Nickles and then-Gov. Frank Keating. These men, both Republicans, understood what a boon this service could be for the state, and they were correct.

It’s unfortunate that some of their successors in office have almost wet all over themselves to shut down the Heartland Flyer, although it’s more profitable than most Amtrak lines, and the company is now running four passenger cars daily with its front-and-back engines. And not infrequently, those cars are full. Towns along the line have reaped the economic benefits.

The same shortsightedness is on display from those politicians who want to sell the state’s tracks. We wonder whose pockets would be lined by the proceeds.

If Okies were starved for rail service from their capital city to Texas, they’re similarly anxious to see a line linking Oklahoma City to Tulsa – perhaps one that runs twice daily. And if the predictions of certain area energy industry sages that Oklahoma’s economy will be booming within a couple of years are spot-on, the rail service won’t just be a convenience; it will be a necessity, linking Oklahoma’s two prime cities with the Dallas/Fort Worth and Kansas City metropolises.

Ideally, Iowa Pacific will see the writing on the wall, and make the Eastern Flyer luxury train a permanent fixture. If you’re interested in the possibilities, go to www.easternflyer.com. Amtrak should also continue to push for the Northern Flyer, which would connect Oklahoma City to Kansas City, with a spur coming from Tulsa. That, however, will take some better politicians than are currently wasting our money on both the state and federal level – on projects that benefit no one, and don’t grow the economy.

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