SAPULPA - Lind Wickersham was 7 years old when he got his first train set, which set off a lifetime interest in rail travel.
So it was only appropriate that he was on the Eastern Flyer on Sunday, the train's first journey from Sapulpa to the Oklahoma City area as state Transportation Department officials review four proposals to purchase the rail line.
"I just thought I'd like to support the rail system between the two cities," Wickersham, of Tulsa, said. "I've had a longtime interest in trains, so when I saw an opportunity to go, I took it."
The train departed from Sapulpa at 8 a.m., and by 7:30 a.m. a long line of excited passengers were wrapped around a tent in the middle of an empty field near Sapulpa City Golf Course, waiting to pick up their tickets. The heated tent offered a brief respite from the cold, with helpful employees offering coffee and doughnuts to those taking part in the adventure.
The train cars were the early stars of the day. Foot traffic was halted a number of times as a long line of pedestrians with their phones out, taking pictures, walked from the parking area across Oklahoma 66 and toward the boarding area.
Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific, which is operating demonstration rides, said he hopes the Oklahoma Department of Transportation chooses his company to run the line. If so, Ellis said the plan would be to quickly have eight trains running between Tulsa and Oklahoma City during the week, as well as five running each weekend.
Antonio Perez, president and CEO of Talgo, Inc., a Seattle, Wash., a high-speed train manufacturer also made the trip and said he saw a great opportunity in northeast Oklahoma.
"This could be something similar to what we have in the Pacific Northwest," Perez said.
"We started with only one train there, and ridership started going up ... that led the state to purchase train sets, this model was very successful."
The rail line had more than 100 curves on it between Sapulpa and Midwest City, meaning the train averaged about 30 mph on the 97-mile trip. Perez said Talgo, Inc., manufactures tilting trains, which can travel faster on windy rails. That technology, compared to building a new line, is often a much cheaper way to provide speedy travel, Perez said.
Ellis said about $15 million had been poured into the line so far to improve it to where the current train can reach the 30-40 mph speeds it now tops out at.
The line begins south of the Turner Turnpike and mostly follows alongside it, before crossing it to the north just after Chandler, then once again heading south, where it meets Midwest City. The trip is primarily through rural sections of the state and was particularly scenic with snow-covered woods, frozen ponds and creeks, as well as some wildlife visible for most of the ride.
"Any new operation, especially one that takes an incremental approach ... that is our interest," Perez said. "(In the Pacific Northwest) as the infrastructure grew, the system got better and better."
Ellis said a train ride appeals to commuters because they can work, read, or play instead of driving and being able to only focus on the road. Indeed, many passengers spent the trip reading books and newspapers, or watching movies on tablets or laptops. Some even took advantage of the hands-free travel to get some crocheting done.
The novelty of riding a train and being a part of the inaugural voyage lured many to make the trip.
It also lured many bystanders. The train made two stops in Bristow and Stroud before reaching Midwest City, and each stop was met with people who had pulled off the road to take pictures.
Amye Wirick, of Broken Arrow, and Amy Locke, of Sapulpa, were in a group traveling to the Bricktown area of Oklahoma City to meet friends for lunch and company.
"Amy's birthday is on the 11th," Wirick said. "I saw it and thought that it sounded fun and said 'We've got to do this for your birthday.' "
Locke said they were excited to be part of the first group making the trip.
"We've only ridden the train at the zoo, before," she said. "I hope this is something they continue."
Locke said she grew up in Houston and had ridden before on a commuter train from her hometown to Galveston, Texas.
"It didn't last; they canceled it," she said. "I hope people support this. It's new and exciting and it sounds so fun."
Dylan Goforth 918-581-8451