September 10, 2017 - TRA Newswire -

Back in 1997 Amtrak's Texas Eagle tri-weekly train was written off as part of a cost-cutting effort by the passenger rail service. The train schedule for the San Antonio to Chicago service was deleted from timetables and the reservation centers would not take any bookings. But this was a train needed by the towns and cities up and down the line that had few transportation options.

Mayors, councils, various officials and interested citizens among others formed a coalition called TEMPO, the Texas Eagle Marketing and Performance Organization and petitioned to keep the Texas Eagle running. Through their perseverance the Texas Eagle now runs seven days a week and over the years ridership and revenue has continue to increase. This year the Texas Eagle was the #1 performing Amtrak national network train for the first 10 months of the company's fiscal year.

A 20 year celebration was held at the St. Louis Union Station hotel over the weekend to honor those that not only saved the train but continue to work with all interested parties at every station in Texas, Arkansas and Missouri to promote and enhance the service. Former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, then Governor George W. Bush and former Texas Transportation Chairman David Laney were credited with keeping the Texas Eagle running.  A bridge loan was crafted for $5 million and was paid back by Amtrak, ahead of schedule, to keep the train operating.

Those that were mentioned at the meeting for their work in keeping the Texas Eagle running included former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr, former Marshall Mayor Audrey Carroll, former Mineola Mayor Celia Boswell along with citizens Barbara Musgrave and Mercy Rushing, Longview resident Natalie Rabicoff, National Association of Railroad Passengers Directors Ray Dunbar and Bill Pollard and three Amtrak employees: Joy Smith, Tim Cooper and Griff Hubbard.  The two host railroads present at the celebration, Union Pacific and BNSF, were also honored for their efforts in handling the Texas Eagle and working with Amtrak and TEMPO on service improvements.

In the last 20 years most all stations have been renovated and improved including Longview, Marshall, Mineola and San Marcos. Station improvements in 2018 are scheduled for Cleburne and McGregor (Waco). The Texas Eagle now runs on the Trinity Railway Express between Dallas and Fort Worth showing a significant improvement in running time.

Challenges still remain in marketing the daily train but as National Trains Vice President Mark Murphy said at the TEMPO meeting "Amtrak now brings in 94 cents on the dollar to breaking even" and is requiring the smallest government subsidy for operations since it was formed in the 1970's. Murphy said that Amtrak is reaching a point where, in the future, it may only need funding for capital improvements from the federal government like highways and airlines do and not for operating support to run the trains.

New horizons for connectivity that TEMPO members will be focusing on include pushing for daily service between Dallas-Fort Worth and Meridian Mississippi along the I-20 corridor to re-connect service that was discontinued half a century ago. There is renewed interest from towns, cities and universities along the I-20 corridor in East Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi to restore service in the face of fewer air and bus connections.  Restoration of rail service from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Florida that was cut following Hurricane Katrina would restore a Texas Gulf Coast connection that many travelers request. Increasing from one to two round trips on the Fort Worth to Oklahoma City daily Heartland Flyer with an extension to Kansas is an issue that is now receiving additional support from towns and cities along the route. The Heartland Flyer is a joint-venture of the Texas and Oklahoma Departments of Transportation. Flatonia, Texas which lies midway between Houston and San Antonio along Interstate 10 has been petitioning for a rail stop to serve a region that is considered to be in a public transportation desert. Flatonia has garnered support from surrounding counties and is working with Amtrak and Union Pacific Railroad to establish a rail stop.