All Aboard!

October 23, 2019By Andrea Agardy

Texas State Railroad offers a trip back in time

The Mikado 2-8-2 steam locomotive built in 1917 is ready for its journey.
The Mikado 2-8-2 steam locomotive built in 1917 is ready for its journey.

By Andrea Agardy

Despite the conveniences of modern life, traveling can be a hassle. The frustrations of clogged highways, long security lines and travelers packing into seats like sardines can make it easy to forget there was once a time when the journey was just as enjoyable as the destination.

Curious about what traveling in style used to mean? Look no further than the Texas State Railroad. With two stations — a historic iron ore depot in Rusk and a vintage Victorian depot 25 miles down the track in Palestine — passengers enjoy the grandeur of yesteryear while riding the rails through the scenic pine woods of East Texas. “While you’re onboard, you’re actually sitting on a rolling museum because all of these cars, including the engines, date back to the early 1900s,” says Jennifer Price, the railroad’s sales and marketing manager.

History in Motion

The Western Group now owns and operates the rail line, whose first tracks were laid in 1881 by inmates from the Rusk Penitentiary to get Rusk’s crops and iron ore to market. Over time, Price says, the railroad transitioned to passenger trains and luxury travel. It became a tourist attraction in the 1970s when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department took it over. The Western Group took ownership roughly a decade ago.

Of particular interest to train buffs, the Texas State Railroad has two historic locomotives. The TSR 125 is a refurbished 1940 Alco 7 diesel engine. “When you see it today, it looks like a brand-new engine,” Price says. “Sparkling robust red and bright yellow.”

There’s also a steam engine that dates back to the late 1890s. Price says the railroad has professional welders on staff, since replacement parts for a locomotive that was new more than a century ago are hard to come by. “We offer both engines because we have both, and we want to share both,” she says. “These are historic pieces that are still operating today. You have people who are just really interested in diesel engine operation, and here’s a diesel engine from the early days.”

Something For Everyone

While the Texas State Railroad offers plenty to keep railroad enthusiasts’ interest chugging along, the appeal extends far beyond those with a love of locomotives. Price says people come from all over the globe to enjoy the experience. “We’ve actually enhanced the rail now to where your excursion is more of a luxury, relaxing excursion,” Price says. “We pamper those in our presidential, upper dome, first class and the charter caboose. Those passengers enjoy a complimentary champagne or sparkling cider toast upon departure and appetizers throughout the trip.”

The railroad offers a variety of seating options and price points — from the open-air car with its vintage wooden seats to presidential seating in an adults-only car with a private viewing platform, bartender and porter. Prices, on average, range from $25 to $90 per person, depending on the seating class selected.

The railroad also offers a variety of themed trips throughout the year, both for children and adults. Kids can board the Easter Egg Express in the spring and get into the Halloween spirit with the Pumpkin Patch Express. Every May, the railroad hosts May for Maydelle Runs, Price says, when groups from area schools ride from Rusk to Maydelle, where the railroad maintains a historic turntable that spins the train around and sends it back to the depot in Rusk.

Grownups are invited to pair their excursion with adult beverages — a menu which, as of this year, includes offerings from Red 55 Winery, country music star Miranda Lambert’s family winery in Lindale. The Chocolate Lovers’ Express, on which passengers enjoy wine and chocolates, offers a romantic Valentine’s Day experience. A four-course meal and mimosas await passengers aboard the Brunch Train, and beer aficionados can sample brews during the Pints in the Pines trip. Connoisseurs should check out Wines in the Pines, a wine-tasting train.

Back to the Future

While the Texas State Railroad prides itself on giving its passengers a taste of the past, it also has its eyes on the future. The railroad plans to install Wi-Fi on the train in the coming months to stream music throughout the cars. Social media sites like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, where users can find the railroad by searching for TexasStateRR, are also effective tools to reach out to repeat and prospective passengers alike.

The railroad also uses broadband to give its customers an informative and efficient experience long before they arrive at the depot. The website, texasstaterailroad.net, provides a wealth of information about the railroad itself and the surrounding area. There is information about various discounts online, and visitors can book trips from their couches. “This gives them an opportunity to, at their convenience, no matter what time of day or night, find out all we have to offer,” Price says. “They can book online or they can go in and make their travel plans outside of normal business hours.”

All Aboard! magazine article