Things are Looking Up at the Texas State Railroad

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Monday, June 12, 2017

To say that the Texas State Railroad has had a turbulent spring would be an understatement to the same degree as confusing the 610, the railroad's resident Texas & Pacific 2-10-4, with a diminutive Hunslet switcher. 

The future of the East Texas railroad has been uncertain since January, when a press release sent in error to numerous media outlets stated that the railroad was closing indefinitely and all of its employees had been laid off.  The first part was soon stated to be false: The TSRR was only shutting down for the off-season, as it did every year. The second, though, was true. All but a handful of personnel had been terminated. In the months that followed, the Texas State Railroad Authority Board-- the entity that acts as an intermediary between the State of Texas, owner of the property and equipment, and whatever company manages the railroad-- decided to part ties with Iowa Pacific, which had managed the property since 2012. After calling for new operators, the board contracted with the Western Group to take over management. 

The local community gave a cautious sigh of relief at that news. At least the area had dodged the potential bullet of the railroad ceasing to operate, and most of the employees who had been employed in January survived the management transition. The Western Group had outlined a number of ideas for improving business and bringing in more people, but whether the railroad would prosper under the new management would take time to see.

The first steam-powered departures, scheduled for late May, provided a good occasion to visit the railroad and observe if there were any signs that the place was changing. The legal details of the transition had been hammered out by this point, and the Western Group was firmly at the throttle.


There is an auspicious sign as soon as I arrive: the parking lots at the Rusk depot is full almost to the brim. One of the Western Group's simplest ideas for improving the place--putting more money towards marketing the Texas State Railroad the Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth markets--is already bringing dividends. They have put out press releases and hit a steady social media beat to present this first steam weekend as a special event. That effort pays off with almost every seat in the train filled up, something that I had not seen out here outside of the Polar Express trains.


The first few moments on board make it apparent that the Western Group is investing in the equipment behind the locomotive, too. The first-class cars smell of new paint, and there are new curtains and the beginnings of new interior paneling placed on the walls. When finished, they will be reminiscent of paneled and upholstered luxury coaches in the Gilded Age. The employees mention that there were upgrades coming to the open-air coaches as well. The Western Group also has big plans for the two stations: At both points, most of the interior space is closed up and shows very obvious progress to modernize the interpretive displays, gift shops, and remodel some of the space into a cafe.


The trips last four hours in total, which allows plenty of time to mingle with the passengers and catalog their impressions of the place’s newest incarnation. If there is an overarching theme to their enjoyment, it is that few of them had any idea that the Texas State Railroad existed at all. Others assumed it ceased operations about ten years ago when the State of Texas stopped managing the railroad and the campgrounds around it as a state park. In any case, simply putting the word out that the place is still active has been a powerful tactic.


At the moment, the Texas State Railroad is  the only operation in Texas which operates standard-gauge steam locomotives. Quite a high percentage of the passengers say they had come out specifically for the thrill of seeing one in action. The older members of the crowd tend to hang back, to make a stoic inspection of the running gear and staybolt caps. They seldom felt the need to underscore that the experience was sublime or transcendent. They originated from a time when this kind of supernal mechanical grandeur often came rolling by.  They are free with the winsome sort of smile, though, that shows they feel at at home.  


Patrons from younger generations are much more exuberant. For them, this might as well be magic, and they react with all the exultation due to a genuine miracle. A not insubstantial number of the day's passengers say that the train wouldn't have had the same appeal without the steam locomotive at the head of the train. Their enthrallment sometimes turns into extra revenue: One young-ish man upgraded to a cab ride during the layover in Palestine.


A  bit of time has gone by since my visit, and since then, the momentum of the first weekend appears to have continued. There has been steady online advertising, posts showing continued work on the steam locomotives,and more preparation for special event trains coming up in June and beyond. In nearly five years of visiting the Texas State Railroad, my strongest impression of the place is that it could be so much more. Now, the signs are there that it soon will be.



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