While the Heartland Flyer is a relatively new train started by Amtrak with just over 10 years of service currently it is actually a truncated version of a much longer route the carrier once operated, the Lone Star. Today's regional train connects Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with Fort Worth, Texas and operates a corridor of just over 200 miles. The earliest history of this route was operated by Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe as the Texas Chief and ran all of the way from Chicago into deep Texas at the Gulf Coast. While the train was not quite as popular or well known as the Santa Fe's other Chiefs it offered an incredible high level of service as only the railroad could deliver. When Amtrak brought back part of it as the Flyer the train far exceeded the carrier's expectations with more than three-times the ridership. The train's future looks strong and there is hope that it will be expanded further to other nearby cities.
The history of Santa Fe's Texas Chief begins on April 3, 1948 when it was launched as the railroad's newest (and last) Chief thus bringing its total to four with the others being; the original Chief (Los Angeles - Chicago), flagship Super Chief (Los Angeles - Chicago), and the San Francisco Chief (Chicago - San Francisco). The Texas replaced the Fast Fifteen, a regional run operated only between Oklahoma and Galveston by subsidiary Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway. The equipment used for the train was a combination of new cars purchased from American Car & Foundry, Pullman, and the Budd Company as well as revamped lightweight cars from other Chief trains that had been upgraded. Since the train was an overnight run that required more than 26 hours to complete the trip between Chicago and Galveston much of its consist included sleepers with the rest being a lounge, chair cars, and a diner.
Most versions of the Texas Chief thus sported a seven-car consist not including the head-end baggage. For power the train typically utilized an EMD F7 lashup that, of course, was adorned in Leland Knickerbocker's legendary Warbonnet livery of red and yellow with shining stainless steel. To learn more about the Texas Chief please click here. Santa Fe continued to operate the Texas Chief until the startup of Amtrak on May 1, 1971. At that point the new carrier retained the train on its timetable until March, 1974 when the name was changed as the Lone Star. The train also saw a new routing as it no longer served Galveston directly but stopped instead at Houston. While Amtrak continued to use original AT&SF equipment on the train (including the famous Hi-Level coaches used on the El Capitan and similar to today's Superliner cars) its power during the 1970s was the new EMD SDP40Fs beginning in 1973.
These locomotives were based from the highly successful SD40 series freight designs but, unfortunately, were not meant for operating at high speeds hauling passenger trains. As such, they were retired within a few years and replaced by the far more reliable F40PHs. Interestingly, even after Amtrak ownership the Lone Star remained quite popular, perhaps part of which was due to the fact that Santa Fe maintained an incredibly high level of service for its passenger trains right until the end. Despite the demand funding cutbacks in the late 1970s forced Amtrak to cutback its network and the Lone Star as a casualty of this. As a result, it made its final run on October 9, 1979. After this point the carrier did not offer a train serving the Heartland between Chicago and Texas for 20 years until 1999 when the Heartland Flyer was inaugurated between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth.
Had it not been for the train's partial subsidization by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation it likely would never have become a reality. Initially, Amtrak had anticipated the new 206-mile corridor would only garner about 20,000 riders in its first year. Much to its surprise the Flyer saw ridership more than three times that number at 71,400. Additionally, passengers were very pleased with the new service and over the next 8 years ridership has hovered around the 70,000 mark. However, since 2007 demand has again taken a jump with 2011 seeing numbers peak at over 84,000. This can likely partially be explained by the jump in oil prices since then at the subdued nature of the American economy. Whatever the case, the future of the Flyer appears to be very bright.
What is interesting about the train is its consist. Whereas most of Amtrak's regional corridors utilize Amfleet cars this is not the case for the Flyer, which sports the very popular Superliners (another reason for the train's success). For power it features a GE P32-8WH "Genesis" diesel locomotive and provides connecting service to the Texas Eagle at Fort Worth, a transcontinental train that operates between Chicago-San Antonio-Los Angeles. To further increase ridership there is a push to extend the Flyer to Kansas City whereby it would connect to another transcontinental run, the Southwest Chief at Wichita's Union Station. Thus far this plan has not been approved but hopefully will. To learn more about the Heartland Flyer please click here to visit the train's official website maintained by Oklahoma's DOT. You can also obtain an official timetable and schedule at Amtrak's website.