Right On Track

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The enduring allure of rail travel beckons Oklahomans to climb aboard a passenger rail between Sapulpa and Midwest City and then shuttle to the city centers of the state’s largest metropolitan areas. If successful, the route will expand to direct rail between downtown centers of both Tulsa and Oklahoma City and – via this crucial connection – almost anywhere in the U.S.

The dream of Oklahoma passenger rail received a momentum boost from a 2006 regional rail summit of state legislators, officials from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and Amtrak that was originated and hosted by attorney Rick Westcott, a Tulsa city councilor from 2006 to 2011. The state legislature formed the Eastern Flyer Rail Task Force in 2010 and, finding no Tulsans on the task force, the Tulsa City Council created its own citizen committee to offer input and appointed Westcott as its chair.

“The long-term future of passenger rail in the state depends upon the success of the trial routes.”

“I’ve seen cities all over the U.S. use passenger rail as an economic tool and am convinced that the entire state would benefit,” says Westcott. “People need to know Amtrak is not the only model for passenger rail. There does not have to be large tax subsidies that people don’t like.”

The future of Oklahoma train travel is bright, says Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Oklahoma, a grassroots nonprofit with a mission to promote passenger rail.

Beginning in spring 2015, two trains a day will run between Midwest City and Sapulpa, with connecting shuttle bus services from Midwest City to Norman, Will Rogers World Airport and the State Capitol, says Stair. In Tulsa, shuttle buses will travel to Bartlesville, the University of Tulsa and Tulsa International Airport.

For this route to succeed, both Westcott and Stair agree that people will have to use the passenger service during the six-month trial period.

“The long-term future of passenger rail in the state depends upon the success of the trial routes,” says Stair. “Route extensions could expand to downtown depots in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The downtown Oklahoma City Santa Fe Depot is already used for Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer with stops in Norman, Purcell, Pauls Valley, Ardmore and in Texas – Gainesville and Fort Worth. The ultimate dream is a full-corridor route where rails already exist: Kansas City-Joplin-Tulsa-Oklahoma City-Fort Worth.

This would allow direct train travel over Amtrak’s 46-state system. And, eventually, people could live in Oklahoma City and work in Tulsa, and vice-versa.”

If the Midwest City-Sapulpa route proves viable, resolving the many intricacies required to make those last, necessary direct-rail connections to the city centers is certainly workable, says Westcott.

These issues include ensuring that a 99-year access privilege, granted to the State of Oklahoma by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad when the state purchased the stretch of rail between Oklahoma City to Tulsa (aka the Sooner Sub), is also given to the current owner of the line, Iowa Pacific and Stillwater Central Railroad (SCR), a subdivision of Watco.

Though these and other multi-entity details need resolving, Westcott believes “there are options, and I’m confident that these companies wanting to profit will work it out. Once SCR bought the Sooner Sub, the negotiations became private, so we can’t know the details. But this situation has great value to all parties involved. Let’s work out a deal.”

Westcott emphasizes that while not as speedy as car travel, a train ride allows commuters time to either work or relax and enjoy the ride.

Train travel is a passion for many, as exemplified by the 27-day run of Iowa Pacific’s Polar Express, already nearly sold out and departing from Bristow to the “North Pole” this winter. Passenger rail enthusiasts tout the opportunity for work and leisure in train travel compared to the constant vigilance demanded while driving a car.

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