Oklahoma Department of Transportation completes $75 million sale of nearly 100 miles of track

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation on Monday completed the $75 million sale of nearly 100 miles of railroad track between Sapulpa and Stillwater to Stillwater Central Railroad LLC, which plans to introduce passenger rail service connecting the Tulsa suburb to the Oklahoma City suburb.

ODOT Director Mike Patterson and Ed McKechnie, chief commercial officer for Pittsburg, Kansas-based Watco Companies, the parent company of Stillwater Central Railroad, signed the documents completing the sale of the 97.5 mile-stretch of rail, known as the Sooner Sub.

McKechnie said the company is working with Iowa Pacific, which operates passenger train services in the United States and other countries, to begin a trial run for passenger service sometime during the first half of 2015.

He said the timeline for starting the service and questions about the price of tickets, how many stops will be made along the route and the length of time it takes to make the trip are still being studied, with answers expected by early October.

McKechnie said safety issues must be addressed and the track improved to allow trains to travel at a faster speed.

The rail is rated Class 2, which allows speeds of up to 25 mph for freight and up to 30 mph for passenger trains. An upgrade to Class 3 would allow speeds of up to 40 mph for freight and 60 mph for passenger trains, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

"Safety is the most important thing that you do in this so as you go from moving a carload of grain to moving a carload of people you want to make sure that everything is as it should be," McKechnie said.

The ultimate goal is to connect downtown Tulsa to downtown Oklahoma City by rail, officials have said. There are currently three rail trips per day from Sapulpa into Tulsa, while Oklahoma City officials would have to negotiate with Union Pacific to secure services, according to Patterson.

McKechnie said Stillwater Central Railroad will continue moving freight on the Sooner Sub rail, including agriculture and construction products and crude oil.

"The facility in Stroud is one of the central points of the energy markets in North America," McKechnie said, adding that work is underway to build a rail spur to Cushing, the primary oil storage hub in the U.S.

Patterson said funds from the sale will be placed, by law, in the department's railroad maintenance revolving fund for safety projects.

"That would include ... rail crossing projects, to make those intersections between trains and automobiles more safe," Patterson said.

The sale is in keeping with what ODOT believes was the Legislature's intent when the agency purchased rail lines during the 1980s, Patterson said.

"When the private sector became prepared to repurchase the lines, that we would sell it back to the private sector so that the state of Oklahoma is not in competition," with private business, according to Patterson.

Patterson said ODOT previously sold to Union Pacific a rail line stretching from the state's border with Kansas to i's border with Texas and has been approached about negotiations to sell what is known as the Cowboy Sub, about 22 miles of rail between Stillwater and Pawnee.