By Gina Harkins
Some ride the Heartland Flyer for the first time by chance. Others are seeking a more comfortable drive to visit our neighbors across the Red River. And still others are hoping to capture a piece of nostalgia. But for many, the trip becomes an extraordinary adventure they may not have expected, but one they most certainly hope to recreate again and again.
It was that accidental moment that brought Catoosa resident Jennifer Edwards aboard the train, which celebrated its 12th anniversary last June. In planning an annual girls’ trip with seven of her closest friends, the women had a dilemma – where to next?
“Normally several of us have to drive, and the drivers end up being left out of the goings-on in the vehicle,” Edwards explained. “And I’m usually a driver.”
To Edwards’ delight, someone suggested the Heartland Flyer to Fort Worth for a weekend of southern cuisine, western flair and relaxation. And the rest, as they say, is history.
According to John Dougherty, Amtrak Assistant Division Manager for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, Edwards is far from alone. More than 746,000 passengers have traveled on the Heartland Flyer as of October 2011, and interest continues to rise. Seven days a week, the train makes its way from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth and back, with stops both ways in Norman, Purcell, Pauls Valley, Ardmore and Gainesville, Texas. Eventually, the Heartland Flyer hopes to make another city part of its route.
“Rail passenger service to Tulsa is in ODOT’s future plans,” Dougherty said. “We would dearly love to have Oklahoma’s two largest cities connected by passenger rail.” Dougherty explained that ODOT is currently working to further this cause, gathering information that will put them in a more favorable position for future stimulus monies as they become available.
For Oklahoma City resident Katie Kurtz, bachelorette festivities in Fort Worth led her to a Heartland Flyer experience she’ll never forget.
“The little bit of extra time that it takes to get from Point A to Point B riding on the Heartland Flyer is totally worth the experience,” she said. “You’re seeing a whole new view of the trip than you would if you were driving. And the fact that you’re not driving is amazing because you can relax and actually enjoy yourself.”
Heartland Flyer Coalition Chairman Judi Elmore said in total, the trip takes approximately 4 hours and 10 minutes, including stops. And although there are no direct non-stop trips, there are neither construction zones to worry about, distracted drivers to dodge or bumpy roads to spoil the ride.
“I really thought the train ride would be bumpier,” Edwards mused. “It was actually very, very smooth. I just had this misconception from watching old westerns, where you can just imagine what it would be like.”
In addition to a smooth ride, the Heartland Flyer also offers luxuriously spacious reclining seats with footrests and on-board snacks and drinks to enjoy while mingling with other passengers and meeting new friends. Guests are allowed to bring their own food, but alcoholic beverages must be purchased in the café car.
The train also plans to host a wine tasting event this year, along with several other special activities. Each year, the Flyer becomes home for several on-board events, including National Train Day, Santa Train and a special train for Sooner fans on their way to the Red River Rivalry each October.
“The OU/Texas train is always sold out,” Elmore said. “Extra coaches are added to accommodate the demand for seats. We encourage passengers to book early to reserve a spot.” For that day only, the train is extended into Dallas to take passengers directly to the game, a convenience that is included in the price of the ticket.
“Typically, throughout the year reservations are easy and can be made just a day or a few days ahead of travel dates,” Dougherty said.
For those seeking a trip to Dallas any other time of the year, travel is equally easy. Norman resident Curt Coy discovered that upon arriving at the Fort Worth Station he could take another train into Dallas, with several opportunities to make stops throughout the Dallas area. Visiting Texas to meet up with a close friend, he was surprised to find that getting there was more than half the fun.
“The conductors were very amiable, nice and generally cool people,” Coy said. “On both trips, the employees definitely went above and beyond.”
As Heartland Flyer Conductor David Mayo explained, common courtesy is just part of his job.
“If you’re not enjoying your job and you’re not friendly, then you’re in the wrong position,” Mayo said. A ride on the Flyer starts with a welcoming greeting upon entry, and continues throughout the trip, from sharing jokes with child passengers to showing newcomers how to adjust their seat backs to the perfect comfort level.
“Safety, security and service are all things that we take very seriously,” Mayo said. “Sometimes it’s a juggling act, but it works.”
After the conductors helped Coy settle into his seat and arrange a ticket reservation, he discovered a train filled with interesting people from Oklahoma and beyond.
“There was a guy from Seattle, and we chatted about how things differ there,” he recalled. He conversed with a young military woman for a while before running into Edwards and her friends, who were also experiencing their first trip on the Heartland Flyer.
“It really reminded me of being on the trains in Europe,” Coy said. “I always loved that because of the social atmosphere. There’s a certain kind of conversation that you have with people on trains and buses – you’ve never met them before, and you’ll likely never see them again. So you end up telling stories you wouldn’t ordinarily tell.”
And as the train and the conversations roll on, historic sites, green pastures and open spaces provide the perfect scenic backdrop for stories to unfold.
“It was gorgeous, going down in the daylight and seeing all the beauty, and by the border there was a lot of fall foliage,” Coy said. “For a lot of the trip, you’re just kind of out in nature, it’s not that you’re in the city or parallel to the interstate.”
While getting there is exciting on its own, the trip isn’t complete until you’ve gotten off and explored the destination. Once the Heartland Flyer reaches Fort Worth, passengers are welcomed to a modern taste of the Old West, starting with a free ride on “Molly the Trolly” to restaurants, shops and nearby hotels. Sundance Square, a shopping and food lovers’ dream, is close by in downtown Fort Worth, along with the famous stockyards.
“The Fort Worth Stockyards are like right out of a movie,” Kurtz said. “Twice a day they have a cattle drive through the streets; it’s almost like a parade. There are a ton of shops and restaurants. If you’re into western-style stuff, that is the place to be.”
Edwards gives a five-star review to Sundance Square’s Cowtown Diner, a country chic eatery that she proclaims a must-see (and taste) in Fort Worth.
“It doesn’t sound amazing by the name alone, but the food is fabulous,” Edwards said.
If you’re not in a western mood, there’s plenty to fill your weekend with fun before heading back on the Heartland Flyer. Visit the Fort Worth Zoo for close encounters with some of the world’s most beautiful exotic creatures. Relax and reflect at the Fort Worth Water Gardens. Take a connecting train to Dallas to enjoy incredible aquatic and wildlife at the Dallas World Aquarium. Take in the beauty of seasonal flowers, trees and plants at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Catch a game or concert at the American Airlines Center and explore the shops and eateries in Victory Park.
Just around the corner, art aficionados will appreciate the Dallas Arts District, with several museums and arts centers to peruse including the renowned Dallas Museum of Art. All Americans should visit the John F. Kennedy Memorial at The Sixth Floor Museum, commemorating the assassination and legacy of our nation’s 35th President.
Wherever your travels take you, the Heartland Flyer is sure to make the ride home a happy and enjoyable one.
“I would ride it again in a heartbeat, and I’m absolutely going to take my husband on it next time we have the opportunity for a long weekend,” Edwards said.
Coy agrees. “It was a hell of a lot of fun,” he said. “I almost certainly will do it again the next time I go to Dallas.”
Whether you’re a frequent train traveler or have never been on the railroad before, your opportunity to learn more about Oklahoma’s train is available at the Santa Fe Depot in downtown Oklahoma City this month. In celebration of Amtrak’s 40th anniversary, an exhibit train with photos, uniforms, china and memorabilia will be on display January 14 and 15.
“We feel the Heartland Flyer is an appropriate selection since it is Amtrak’s number one rated train in customer satisfaction across their entire system,” Dougherty said. “What better way and opportunity for Oklahomans who haven’t been on the Flyer to experience first-hand the awesome accommodations of THEIR Heartland Flyer.”
For more information and to make reservations for your next Heartland Flyer adventure, visit www.heartlandflyer.com.