SAPULPA — As he looked out the window of a train somewhere west of Bristow, Chris Guenzler recounted some of the more than a million miles of railroad track he’s traveled.
Guenzler has traveled by train through all 50 states. He’s ridden Mexico’s Copper Canyon Railway and every inter-city rail route in Canada. Last weekend, Guenzler flew halfway across the country from his California home to ride the Eastern Flyer, an excursion train running from Sapulpa to Midwest City.
Guenzler said the trip was a chance to cover a stretch of track he’d never seen. And it’s a chance he may never see again: Sunday’s trip could be the Eastern Flyer’s last run.
The trip was the last of three demonstration runs the train made from Sapulpa to Midwest City. Iowa Pacific Holdings, the train’s operator, used the trips to show Oklahomans the services the company would offer on a permanent basis if it gets the opportunity.
Oklahoma Department of Transportation officials are negotiating with two railroad companies — BNSF Railway Co. and Watco Cos., owner of Stillwater Central Railroad — over the potential sale of the Sooner Sub, a 97.5-mile segment of state-owned railroad track that runs between Sapulpa and Del City.
Iowa Pacific was one of four firms that entered a bid for the track. But after that bid lost out to BNSF and Watco, Iowa Pacific officials offered to provide passenger rail service along the route by Memorial Day weekend if state officials agreed not to sell the track.
ODOT spokesman Cole Hackett said a committee has until the end of April to review the companies’ proposals.
The Eastern Flyer ran three demonstration trips over the track during February. Each of those 300-passenger runs sold out. Iowa Pacific President Ed Ellis said he expected that level of interest in rail travel between the two cities to continue if the service is offered permanently.
The company would begin by offering service between Sapulpa and Midwest City with shuttle service into Oklahoma City and Bartlesville. Those shuttles would take passengers to and from Oklahoma City Thunder games, museums, university campuses and other points of interest in both cities, Ellis said.
“It will be more than just a train,” Ellis said. “It will be a transportation system.”
During the ride from Sapulpa to Midwest City, Rosalee Thompson stood on a seat and craned her three-year-old neck to see out the window of a passenger car. Lana Neafus, Rosalee’s grandmother, said the family decided to take the ride as a weekend outing.
The family planned to take a shuttle into Oklahoma City and spend the afternoon at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. It was Rosalee’s first trip by train, Neafus said. Several other members of the family had never been on a train, she said.
“It was a great opportunity for them to have their first train ride,” she said.
The company bills the Eastern Flyer as an excursion train. It wouldn’t be the fastest way to travel between the two cities — Sunday’s train trundled along at about 30 to 45 mph, meaning the trip took about twice as long as driving the Turner Turnpike.
But travel by train offers advantages other than speed, said Evan Stair, director of advocacy group Passenger Rail Oklahoma. Sitting in a passenger car of the Eastern Flyer, Stair said a passenger riding by train can relax or get work done in ways that driving a car doesn’t allow.
“Your time is your own when you’re on the train,” Stair said. “You can text, you can ...”
“Drink!” a passenger behind Stair called, waving a beer.
“You can drink,” Stair said. “It’s a more relaxing ride than having your hands glued to a steering wheel.”
It will be more than just a train. It will be a transportation system.”
Iowa Pacific president