|Reading The Rails: Amtrak to OK City
Although youthful fancy has long left me, I still find myself fascinated by trains. Maybe it’s because those innocuous railroad tracks that I
drive over without much thought – except when an impossibly slow moving freight train holds me up – are actually live history lessons,
just waiting for someone to take notice. In Texas and Oklahoma, railroad tracks follow old cattle trails and pioneer roads, and many towns
grew up or died around the rails. Some towns even named themselves (or were named) after railroad executives. Try that with an
Interstate or an airline!
So fortified by a love of all things on rail, the fact that Oklahoma is celebrating its centennial, and the desire to experience a city the way
travelers of yore once did – on foot - I took my family on board the Heartland Flyer, the Amtrak train that makes daily runs from Oklahoma
City to Fort Worth and back. I wanted us to witness the history of that state from the backside, the kind you only see when you follow the
tracks through landscapes that cannot be viewed from the window of a car.
|I took a weekend trip to Oklahoma City on the Heartland Flyer in 2007. Here's my account of this great adventure,
where we didn't have a car, and didn't need one, as we traversed the very walkable downtown.
From the onset, we weren’t disappointed. Even with freight train delays, which take precedence as Amtrak leases the line from the
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, none of us complained. Maybe it’s because there’s just a general acceptance that Amtrak never runs
on time, or the fact (I’d like to think) that with the way we were traveling, time just didn’t seem to matter and the point of the trip was the
Besides, there was a lot to see and do. We whiled away the time meeting fellow travelers, and I became pretty good friends with the snack
car lady who, like a waitress in a forlorn roadside diner, offered free advice and wry insights. The scenery may have also contributed to the
mellow vibe. Since the tracks follow the Santa Fe route, which is one of the oldest North/South railroads in Oklahoma, we passed hulking
grain silos, closed depots, abandoned schools, and lines of old telegraph poles. The train clattered over rust-colored truss bridges, and ran
alongside ancient alignments of US 77. Derelict warehouses and slaughter pens reminded us of a not-so-distant-past that is quickly being
forgotten, while to the contrary, restored train depots amid vibrant commercial districts welcomed the train. We rode through the Arbuckle
Mountains and skirted the Washita River, which had whipped into red colored rapids from the recent heavy rains.
Once in Oklahoma City, we located our hotel, the Sheraton, two blocks from the station. The next day, like time travelers, we explored the
city on foot. We first strolled through Bricktown, the original site of Oklahoma City. Located just east of the train station, we found plenty of
food and souvenirs, and took a boat ride on the canal that interlaces the district. History was retold in art works along the way. We viewed
murals depicting long gone street scenes, saw a sculpture that represented the predominantly African American neighborhood that once
clustered around the tracks, and visited an oversized bronze representation of a land rush scene crossing the Bricktown canal.
What couldn’t be walked to could be discovered via trolley or bus. The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau runs a deliriously cheap trolley (50
cents for four) to many of Oklahoma City’s sites, including the Oklahoma City Memorial. City buses stop at the Capitol Building, Oklahoma
History Center, the stockyards, and the zoo. Both the trolley and the buses stopped in front of our hotel. And, we never felt unsafe or
overly tired from the amount of walking we did.
The early morning trip back to Fort Worth felt just as relaxing as the first train ride. While we made pretty good time if you went by the
clocks in the Amtrak Universe, I couldn’t help notice the irony that trains had created time zones to run more efficiently, and here I was,
satisfied to have been delayed by only an hour and a half.
Like I do after every trip on a train, I came home with renewed resolve to support government subsidies to Amtrak. I also like to think that
we left with an appreciation of the compactness and convenience of train travel, and a sense of the past that can only come when seeing
the landscape roll by as passengers of bygone days once did. History, I learned, is well served on a train.
|A sooner rushing along the Bricktown Canal.
|A lovely canal centers the Bricktown historical district.
|Oklahoma City's Santa Fe Station with elevated platform sits just west of Bricktown.
|Parts of the walls from the Murrah Building that was blasted on
April 19, 1995, still surround the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial
site. Managed by the National Park Service, the memorial is a
moving tribute to the people who died on this very spot.
- A short trip to Oklahoma City requires a two night stay, as the train arrives late and leaves too early the next day for any meaningful sight
seeing. Therefore, a weekend trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City would begin Friday afternoon and end Sunday afternoon.
- The train departs daily from Oklahoma City at 8.25 am and should arrive in Fort Worth at 12.25 pm. The return train leaves at 5.25 pm and
with luck, will arrive by 9.25 pm.
- Tickets can be purchased at http://www.amtrak.com or at the train station. Four round trip tickets from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City cost
- Don’t expect the Orient Express on the Heartland Flyer. You’ll find the seats comfortable and roomy, but not luxurious. All seating is
upstairs while the snack car and the bathrooms are downstairs. Luggage can be stored downstairs as well, or in overhead bins.
- All seats are first come, first serve, and the train is relatively old. So if you expect to use electronic devices, make sure to arrive early so
you can snag a seat with an outlet.
- I.D. is required at the time of check-in and when boarding.
- The Fort Worth Amtrak Station (1001 Jones Street) is a full service depot, with connecting trains to Chicago and San Antonio. It is also
the city’s main Greyhound Bus depot and a Trinity Railway Express stop. Oklahoma City's station (100 South E.K. Gaylord Boulevard) only
services the Heartland Flyer, so station operation is limited.
- Hotels can be booked via the Amtrak website or the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitor’s Bureau website. The CVB site makes it easy
to figure out which hotels are located within walking distance to the train station, and it also has coupons to area attractions.
|Things to Know Before You Go
|While you'll see this depot along the way, the Heartland Flyer does not stop in Marietta.
|As the Heartland Flyer runs past the Washita River, you'll pass through a little ghost town named Dougherty (it still has a post office but no
school). Next to the tracks there is an old mill. After I spotted the mill, I drove back to get a better look. Surrounded by over growth on a deserted
road, the sand and gravel mill, which was used for asphalt making, gave me a distinct chill.