Hopes dashed for passenger rail service linking Oklahoma City and Tulsa
Hopes for passenger rail service linking Oklahoma City and Tulsa suffered a major setback Monday.
Stillwater Central Railroad failed to meet an Aug. 4 deadline for establishing a six-month pilot program to provide daily passenger rail service between Del City and Sapulpa, Tim Gatz, executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation announced Monday.
"The department is disappointed that the pilot program didn't launch, as it would have helped determine the long-term viability of passenger service on this line, but also understands the obstacles Stillwater Central is facing," the transportation department said in a news release. "ODOT will continue to be open to and explore other options from the private sector for a cost-effective solution for future passenger service."
Stillwater Central Railroad will be required to pay the state $2.8 million in liquidated damages, Gatz said, adding that discussions are currently in progress regarding how the payments will be made.
"They were unsuccessful in doing the pilot," Gatz said. "What the future holds — I wouldn't speculate on what the possibilities of something happening there in the future might be."
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt called Monday's announcement "disappointing, but not necessarily a surprise."
"For those who were following the issue closely, I think we realized that the operator might ultimately decide that the penalty was easier to stomach than actual provision of service," he said.
Holt said he expects Tulsa and Oklahoma City leaders to continue to strive for connectivity, but believes state support will needed for that to actually occur.
"We hope the day arrives when that's a serious conversation we're having at the state level," he said, adding that he understood the state currently has other priorities.
"At least here in Oklahoma City, and in the metro, we're working together for the first time through a regional transit authority to contemplate commuter rail between our metro cities and that's a conversation that will ramp up in the years ahead," Holt said. "We're certainly looking at the rail issue from a regional standpoint, but that kind of distance between Tulsa and Oklahoma City is something the state will have to take the lead on."
Stillwater Central Railroad is part of the Watco Companies based in Pittsburg, Kan.
The railroad company had agreed to establish pilot passenger rail service as part of a $75 million agreement to purchase Sooner Sub rail assets from the state transportation department in 2014. The company has met all other provisions in the sales agreement, Gatz said. Those other requirements included upgrading the rail line, which continues to be used to transport freight.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s the Oklahoma Department of Transportation acquired about 900 miles of rail lines that were slated for abandonment to preserve those rail corridors for future operations, Gatz said. The department has since returned many of those lines to the private sector over the years, leaving it with about 160 miles of lines.