A railroad company is seeking a new operator to run a passenger rail service linking the Tulsa and Oklahoma metro areas, leaving longtime advocates for the train project “cautiously optimistic” about its future.
The Stillwater Central Railroad, an indirect subsidiary of the Kansas-based Watco Cos., issued a request for proposal Thursday to begin securing a private rail carrier. The operator would provide passenger service for an initial period of 10 years between Sapulpa and Del City.
The Eastern Flyer project will extend through the cities of Bristow, Stroud and Chandler along the old Sooner Sub track.
Although the track owned by Stillwater Central runs only from Sapulpa to Del City, the plan is to work with city officials to expand the route to downtown Tulsa and Oklahoma City, said Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa.
“Downtown Tulsa to downtown Oklahoma City was always the goal,” Nichols said. “We just don’t have that ability to do it yet the way things currently are in place.”
This week’s announcement marks the biggest development of the passenger railroad service since organizers indefinitely delayed the train’s grand opening after missing their deadline in May 2015.
The plan derailed when the original rail carrier, Iowa Pacific Holdings, “saw greener pastures” and attempted to take over a train service in Indiana, said Evan Stair, president of Passenger Rail Oklahoma.
But the plan didn’t work out, and the company experienced serious financial hardships. Its involvement with the Eastern Flyer ended.
The failure was especially frustrating for Stair, whose advocacy organization is dedicated to regional passenger rail preservation and expansion.
“It’s actually a sore spot with our organization, because there were some promises made that, I can only assume for financial reasons, Iowa Pacific was not able to follow through,” Stair said.
Now, the Stillwater Central Railroad looks to replace Iowa Pacific to meet contractual obligations established when Stillwater Central purchased the nearly 100-mile railroad line from the state of Oklahoma in 2014.
As part of the sale, the company was reportedly required to start a six-month daily passenger service trial run before August 2019, Oklahoma Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kenna Mitchell said. The financial penalty for not meeting the deadline is $2.8 million.
Although Stair said he’s not optimistic that the deadline can be met, he’s hopeful that the passenger train eventually will come to fruition. He encourages people to wait for updates before getting their hopes up, noting the numerous heartbreaks that have plagued the project since the state began researching its options in 2011.
“This will eventually happen. I am cautiously optimistic something will come from this,” he said. “It’s an extremely frustrating process, but I believe in it. I believe in it not just because I like to ride the train, but because I believe it’s economically important for the state. This helps revitalize downtowns, sustain economies and create a tax base that we need for decent schools and city services.”
Rick Westcott, a former Tulsa city councilor and rail proponent, also described himself as cautiously excited about Stillwater Central’s search for a carrier.
Part of Westcott’s hesitation stems from the understanding that the railroad company will do what’s in its best financial interests, which someday could exclude the Eastern Flyer.
“Just for those reasons, the deal may or may not happen,” he said. “I’m not casting any blame on anyone, but ultimately, Stillwater Central might decide it just doesn’t make financial sense for them, and — bless their hearts — they’re in the business to make money.”
Westcott, who once acted as an unofficial liaison for Iowa Pacific before its departure, also doubts the passenger train can be successful without expanding to Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
“If somebody lives in Tulsa, they’re not going to drive to Sapulpa and get on the train,” he said. “If they drive to Sapulpa, they’re just going to keep going the rest of the way. So while this is good news, it has to go downtown to downtown.”
During the original planning phase, organizers identified a location for a train station along the southwest corner of Archer Street and Boulder Avenue.
Now it’s unclear where a station would be built in downtown if the plan to expand to Tulsa succeeds, said State Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa.
Matthews, who is one of the many local officials to push for a passenger train, said wherever the station ends up if it comes to Tulsa, it would be sure to boost the tourism efforts taking place throughout downtown.
“We’ve already had significant development in the downtown inner-dispersal loop, and that continues,” he said. “We want for people to see Tulsa as a place to come, and we want other ways for them to come. We want them to fly to Tulsa, drive to Tulsa and ride trains to Tulsa.”
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, who had not yet taken office during the initial discussion to establish a train station in downtown, indicated in a statement that he is receptive to the idea.
“In the 21st Century, both cities — and our state — will benefit from improved connectivity between Tulsa and Oklahoma City,” Bynum said. “I continue to support the concept of passenger rail service as one strategy in improving that connectivity, and am eager to see what proposals Watco receives in response to this request.”
When asked by the Tulsa World for a possible opening date for the train, Watco released a statement suggesting that it could be awhile.
Stillwater Central operates freight service over the line between Sapulpa and Del City, and upgrades will be needed to accommodate higher speeds for passenger cars.
“As a freight operator, (Stillwater Central) needs to find an operator with the proper expertise, experience and safety record for hauling passengers, which is quite different than freight operations,” the statement reads. “There are many high hurdles and complicated boxes that need to be checked before a passenger train ever rolls on the Sooner Sub.”