It wasn't just another sun-filled summer morning a couple of decades ago when the impressive sight of a passenger train pulled into Pauls Valley's depot area for the first time in a very long time.
A hint of excitement was in the air when on June 14, 1999 the Amtrak Heartland Flyer rail service made its debut run with Pauls Valley being one of its stops.
The 20th anniversary of the train's return along a route from Oklahoma City to Ft. Worth, Texas is set to roll through this week.
One of those taking notice is Evan Stair, executive director of the Passenger Rail Oklahoma group.
“A lot of critics said it wouldn’t last three years,” Stair said about the Heartland Flyer.
The OKC to Ft. Worth Flyer was established with $23 million in funding that wound up lasting twice the expected three years.
Since then state funding from both Oklahoma and Texas now around $5.5 million a year has helped keep this route on track.
He’s quick to add the solid ridership numbers over the years, especially that first go round, is one way to show just how successful the train has been over the past two decades.
Projections for the train’s first year were to have around 25,000 riders. It turned out to be more than 71,000.
“It had a really good start and everybody was really excited about it. I was cautiously optimistic that we had something really good with this train,” he tells the PV Democrat.
According to Stair, that’s where another factor comes into the train’s success.
“If ridership had been down the train would have been pulled off. I would support pulling the Heartland Flyer if the ridership wasn’t there and the economic impact wasn’t there.”
It’s that economic boost to communities like Pauls Valley where the train stops twice a day that really shows the success of the Heartland Flyer, Stair says.
“I believe in this project. The economic impact on communities is somewhere around $24 million a year. It’s an economic generator which critics will tell you loses money.
“I’m sure Pauls Valley knows all about the benefits tourism has on the community. This is what the Heartland Flyer is bringing to Pauls Valley.
“The Heartland Flyer, to me, continues to be good economic news. To me the Heartland Flyer is an unqualified success.”
With this success Stair says for him it’s surprising the Flyer’s route hasn’t been expanded as a way to bring even more economic good news to the state.
“If you had told me we would still have the Heartland Flyer 20 years later and would still be operating from Oklahoma City to Ft. Worth I would say no way.”
He says there are many, like state lawmakers, who don’t see the positive economic impact from the train.
“They don’t understand this is one of those things where you’ve got to spend a little to get a bigger bang,” Stair says.
“What’s frustrating to me is the train continues to terminate in Oklahoma City.”
What Stair would like to see is the Flyer’s route extended northward to at least Newton, Kansas and possibly one day to Kansas City where it could tie into train routes from Chicago to Los Angeles.