Amtrak is proposing an expansion of the Heartland Flyer line, the passenger rail service running between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas, since 1999.
The proposal would increase the number of daily round trips between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth from one to three. It would also extend the line north to Newton, Kansas, with one round trip per day. Ponca City, which hasn’t had rail service in more than 40 years, is in line for a stop. Mayor Homer Nicholson said that will be great for tourism, aerospace workers and older residents who need to get to Oklahoma City.
Ponca City recently finalized the purchase of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Depot, which they’ll turn into a multimodal transportation hub.
"And that way, we have pre-staged our transportation to join the rail, the passenger rail. We'll be ready, able and willing and waiting on the passenger rail to come through," Nicholson said.
Taking the Heartland Flyer to Newton would also connect it to the Southwest Chief line, which runs from Chicago to Los Angeles. Amtrak President Stephen Gardner believes the demand for Heartland Flyer expansion is there.
"We have hopes that this could generate up to 200,000 riders annually. And so, we feel good about the market here," Gardner said.
Kansas State Sen. Carolyn McGinn agreed, even though the initial trip time from Oklahoma City to Newton by train would be an hour more than it is by car.
"Some of the Gen Z's and the Millennials today, they are more interested in, in — on their gadgets, their phones, their computers. But they want to communicate with their friends, and you can't do that safely while driving in the car," McGinn said.
A timeline and costs for Heartland Flyer expansion are still being worked out. Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said they’ll cover costs to start, and he does not think the proposal will hinge on President Joe Biden getting his preferred version of an infrastructure bill across the finish line.
"There's this upfront federal funding to get started, and then the opportunity to start and grow, and then costs would then transfer to states as it does in all of our other state-supported services today," Flynn said.
Capital costs like bringing the existing line between Oklahoma City and Newton up to passenger service standards could run in excess of $500 million.