The Heartland Flyer. In my years as a business reporter, I can't recall any other topic that ruffles our readers' feathers more than this clearly beloved train.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a Brookings Institution report that analyzed Amtrak nationwide. It found the Heartland Flyer route, which connects Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, Texas, lost more than $43 per rider last year. However, it fared better than most other routes across the country. Only four Amtrak routes didn't lose money last year.
The day the story published, I received calls and emails from people in the train industry and those who just love trains, wanting a chance to defend the Flyer. One caller was so fired up, he yelled at me, my boss, and probably some other people within earshot. Buttons unintentionally pressed.
So this past week, I decided to do something I'd been meaning to do for a long time: ride the Heartland Flyer.
I planned a trip for myself, my train-loving 2-year-old son and my adventurous 4-year-old son to travel from Norman to Pauls Valley — a quick, 40-minute jaunt. Our purpose was to visit The Toy and Action Figure Museum (a must see, if you haven't been), but also to enjoy the ride.
The main obstacle to overcome was how to get home.
I wasn't confident I could keep us all entertained for nearly 12 hours while waiting for the northbound stop at 8:21 p.m. Besides, that would have gotten us home way past bedtime.
So we asked my husband to meet us at the museum and drive us home. Not the most convenient option, but it worked.
Tickets were cheap: less than 20 bucks for the three of us. We arrived at the Norman depot about a half-hour before the 8:49 a.m. departure and were surprised to find a fairly packed house. Couples, singles, families, young and old riders — all waiting to catch the train. My boys bounced around the room with excitement.
The train pulled into the station right on time and all the passengers loaded quickly. We were barely in our seats when the train began moving toward Purcell, its next stop.
While my 2-year-old enjoyed the view from the window (and made fellow passengers chuckle by encouraging the train to “go as fast as you can!”), my 4-year-old declared he now wants to be a conductor when he grows up. I enjoyed the comfy chairs and legroom — much more spacious than in a car or on an airplane. Bottom line: it was fun.
However, I can't imagine the Heartland Flyer maturing from a tourist attraction into a serious mode of transportation. And not only will I probably receive more irate phone calls for saying that, but I just created two new Heartland Flyer fans who will be quick to defend their new favorite “choo-choo.”