Amtrak Returns To Oklahoma

Tuesday, July 27th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Passengers hoping to ride the rails over the Red River and past the Arbuckle Mountains will once again get the chance. Amtrak restored daily passenger rail service between Texas and Oklahoma for the first time in 20 years today with the "Heartland Flyer."

The train crosses what once were the cattle-dotted ranges of Texas and cotton-thick fields of the Chickasaw Nation. Red, white and blue balloons and bunting dressed up Fort Worth's timeworn, 100-year-old Santa Fe depot today as passengers boarded the first passenger train to serve the route in two decades.

More than 100 people, including contingents of Navy cadets and Boy Scouts, were on hand for ceremonies marking the first trip. Dignitaries, politicians, Amtrak executives and reporters boarded as a band played "Oklahoma!" and four window-mounted air conditioners vainly fought the muggy heat. Among them were seven women from the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch. Friends for 45 years, they managed to book seats aboard the first trip. One, Judy Byrd, had called Washington and Chicago to obtain the seats. "I have a fascination with trains, because when I was a girl, I lived 11 miles from town and could hear that whistle blow. I just love trains," the Longview native said.

The Flyer consists of two passenger cars and a snack coach car at a fare of up to $88 for the round trip. A displeased Oklahoma legislator had dubbed the trip the "sack lunch special" because there is no dining car.

After today's inaugural trip from Fort Worth, the daily schedule has the Heartland Flyer leaving Oklahoma City at 8:25 a.m. and arriving in Fort Worth at 1 p.m. The Flyer will leave for the return 180-mile trip at 5:25 p.m. and arrive at 10 p.m. The end of the line will be the renovated Santa Fe station in Oklahoma City.

Along the way, the Flyer will stop in Gainesville, Texas, as
well as the Oklahoma cities of Ardmore, Pauls Valley, Purcell and
Norman. The train will connect Oklahoma with trains that serve Chicago, San Antonio, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Florida. The train operates on tracks owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which uses them for freight delivery of cargo such as coal, grain and intermodal units. Rail lines and signals along the route are expected to be improved to increase the train speed to 90 mph and shorten the estimated 41/2 hour-long trip.

Federal budget cuts for Amtrak, the nation's passenger railroad, ended passenger service on the line in 1979. The Heartland Flyer will operate with a subsidy from Oklahoma.
The state has reported that $23 million has been set aside forthe new service, most of which will finance the rail and crossing improvements. Eleven other states across the country have created similar passenger train routes along existing railroad lines to encourage tourism and add another mode of transportation for travelers. Oklahoma joins California, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin with passenger rail compacts. The 11 states contributed nearly $83 million to support passenger trains last year.

Amtrak has not made a profit since Congress created it in 1971 to take over passenger operations of private railroads. The General Accounting Office reported the railroad lost an average of $47 per passenger in fiscal 1997. In 1997, Congress said Amtrak must become self-sufficient by 2002. It provided a $2.2 billion cash infusion and a steadily declining annual subsidy that ends in three years. That means the passenger railroad has to create a new source of revenue. "Our partnerships with states are growing," Amtrak spokesman Derrick James said. "It's a key way we hope to expand rail service in this country."

Last year, the railroad topped $1 billion in revenue for the
first time, propelled by the best ridership in a decade and its
best on-time performance in 13 years.