The Pryor Times

State News

February 24, 2014

Passenger service returns; maybe

PRYOR, OK — “Fifteen cars and 15 restless riders. Three conductors and 25 sacks of mail.”

Steve Goodman

City of New Orleans

 

Train travel may be returning to Oklahoma.

The Iowa Pacific and Stillwater Central Railroad offered during February the first passenger train travel across the heart of the state in 50 years.

“This is the first piece,” said Evan Stair of Passenger Rail Oklahoma. The organization hopes to establish passenger rail service from St. Louis to Fort Worth.

In 1998, the state purchased the Stillwater Central, which has operated the Eastern Flyer route for more than a decade, investing more than $16 million in improvements. The line provides freight service to nearly two dozen customers, handling more than 29,000 carloads a year in eastern Oklahoma.

Chicago-based Iowa Pacific is an independent operator of passenger trains on Amtrak and non-Amtrak routes. Its goal is to provide regularly scheduled corridor routes from Tulsa to Oklahoma City.

 

“All along the southbound odyssey the train pulls out at Kankakee and rolls past houses, farms and fields...”

 

Eastern Flyer scheduled three round-trips in February to determine if anyone was interested in riding the train.

All three trips sold out.

Feb. 15 was a clear day and passengers boarded with breath visible in the crisp morning air. The riders were offered breakfast in a fully restored 1946 art deco dining car, original in every way, including the window shades. On the way home that afternoon, they could enjoy dinner.

Fine linen, china and glassware were used for meals. Passengers were seated four to a table. New friends and acquaintances were made.

The morning boarding was in Sapulpa, but the train stopped to collect passengers at Bristow and Stroud. Along the route and at every stop, people gathered along the tracks taking photos, videos and waving. Even the railroad workers were taking pictures to record this historic journey.

“Gov. (Mary) Fallin wants to sell the Stillwater Central back to the outfit we bought it from,” Stair said.

He handed out stamped post cards addressed to the governor’s office, encouraging passengers to implore the governor not to sell their railroad.

The line the train was running on is part of the original Atlantic and Pacific built in the late 1800s. Later, it was broken into the Frisco line which provided passenger rail service until 1967.

“You may wonder what happened to passenger service,” the conductor said during the trip. He explained that the main job of early trains was to carry mail – until trucks took over the job. Passengers traveled with the mail.

“You may wonder if that made it (the mail) faster,” he said. “Well, when trains carried the mail, I could post a letter from my hometown in South Dakota, and it would be in Minneapolis, Minn., the next afternoon. You can’t do that now.”

During the inaugural trip in February, Diamond Class passengers traveled in a domed car, which offered maximum visibility of the passing Oklahoma landscape.

The conductor said the passenger cars were made in the 1980s, and one actually ran on the City of New Orleans route.

Train travel from Sapulpa to Oklahoma City took three hours and 20 minutes – not all that much more than on the highway by car. From the turnpike, little can be enjoyed except the expanse of blacktop and concrete. From the train, the view encompasses one bucolic scene after another … and, at a more genteel pace.

 

“Mothers with their babes asleep are rockin’ to the gentle beat and the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.”

 

Passengers had a choice of visiting Bricktown or the Western Heritage Museum for a few hours before reboarding the train.

The gentle rocking motion of the train had several of the children aboard asleep in the first 10 minutes. This allowed parents and other passengers to visit, enjoy the scenery or enjoy a drink - alcoholic or not. No worry about driving.

If Passenger Rail Oklahoma has its way, similar adventures will be available on a daily basis, at a cost cheaper than driving. And a lot more fun. Even lyrical.

 

“Good morning America how are you? See, don’t you know me, I’m your native son. I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans. I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.”

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