BY BETTY WATERS
Since taking over operation of the Texas State Railroad in August 2012, the new operator has made changes, sparking an increase in ridership of the tourist train, and moved toward developing freight traffic.
Iowa Pacific Holdings LLC, the new operator, has increased passenger service, lowered the coach fare, started offering a shorter trip for passengers who don't want to ride the whole route between Palestine and Rusk, and initiated special events.
In another thrust, the company finished restoration of a connection to the rest of the rail system in Palestine and has prospects for freight business, said Earl Knoob, the new general manager for Texas State Railroad.
Riding the Texas State Railroad is still a fun family thing to do and have a good time, Knoob said. It has the only old steam locomotives still running in Texas.
Previously under the former operator, the Texas State Railroad ran one train a week on Saturdays from Rusk to Palestine and during the summer, it was an afternoon train that only went as far as Jarvis, which is 5 miles east of Palestine.
"When we took over, one of the first things we wanted to do was to offer service from both communities," Knoob said.
Iowa Pacific runs one train from each end — a train from Palestine and a train from Rusk at 11 a.m. They meet in the middle of the railroad tracks and go to the other end. Passengers have lunch and come back to where they started from, Knoob said.
"It's a round trip across the entire railroad from each end," he pointed out.
In addition after Memorial Day, Iowa Pacific started running a train along the route on Fridays. The Friday service will be available through Aug. 2.
"Another thing we did was lower the coach fare," Knoob said, from $56 to $32 for adults, $28 for seniors and $20 for children younger than 12.
First-class fare aboard air-conditioned cars with free drinks stayed at $75 for adults, $65 for seniors and $40 for children.
"We will run the Piney Woods Excursion (that's the train ride between the two towns) through the middle of November and then run the Polar Express train from Palestine, which is a shorter ride of about an hour and 15 minutes, Knoob said. It includes a visit with Santa Claus at the North Pole.
"Another thing we've done is we have the ability to give different types of trips now. We are offering a shorter trip for those who don't want to ride the whole route," Knoob said, which takes about four and a half hours round trip.
"We have the straight-through trips from either end and we have a half-way trip from either end," Knoob said. The halfway fare is $28 for adults, $25 for seniors and $15 for kids.
"If you just want a short trip, say an hour and a half train ride, you can get on either end and ride to the middle, where the trains meet, transfer to the other train and it will take you back where you came from immediately," Knoob said.
"We can do a round trip in the morning and a round trip in the afternoon, so if somebody shows up after lunch after trains have all left for the day and they are only here for the afternoon and would like a train ride, we can give an hour and a half ride at 2 p.m. and it doesn't matter which end you are at."
Two popular special events, Knoob said, are the Easter Egg Express the weekend before Easter and a Halloween train ride called the Pumpkin Patch Express.
Both go to a place about five miles west of Rusk with a clear spot by the track where everybody unloads.
"We had the Easter bunny and Easter egg hunts and games for kids," Knoob said, and there will be Halloween activities, such as children selecting a pumpkin.
"The previous operators did something with Snoopy the Easter beagle on a regular train to Palestine, whereas we made a special train that ran to that site and spent two hours at the site and came back," Knoob said.
Another special event was a "Memorial Day Salute to Armed Forces" at the Palestine depot. The Memorial Day celebration was in a new format, replete with living history and re-enactors, food vendors and a World War II command car.
A Fourth of July special this year will be a train leaving from Rusk that will serve a catered barbecued dinner and return in time for a fireworks show on the lake at the Rusk depot.
A dinner train will run from the Palestine depot on Oct. 18. It will be a moonlight ride with a catered dinner.
"When we run a special event, we still offer the straight-through regular train ride from the other end. … We've always got a train running. If you don't want to ride the special event train, we have the regular train," Knoob said.
"We're very pleased that our ridership is generally running about two-thirds ahead of last year. Last year's ridership was pretty bleak because the previous company decided they were going to get out of running the railroad in February or March and pulled their advertising and did no marketing."
Ridership every month and ridership for every special event is up over last year, Janet Gregg, marketing manager, said.
Even comparing ridership since Iowa Pacific took control with 2011, the last year that the previous owner conducted marketing, ridership is noticeably higher — about 5 to 10 percent, Knoob said.
Iowa Pacific operated the railroad the last four months of 2012. Company figures show ridership was up 40 percent in September 2012, up 4.7 percent last October and increased 8.2 percent last November.
Ridership on the Polar Express during the six weeks from Nov. 16 to Dec. 29, 2012, totaled 43,701, compared to 40,397 in 2011 for a 6.8 percent increase,according to company statistics.
The train does not run in January and February when annual maintenance and inspections are conducted.
But the increasing ridership continued this spring, company figures show. According to the statistics, ridership was up 31 percent in March, up 22.9 percent in April and up 47.1 percent in May.
For the first half of June, ridership was showing a 22.5 percent increase, company data showed.
Iowa Pacific has finished making a 2.8-mile connection from the Palestine depot into Palestine to connect with Union Pacific useable again. The last time anything ran on it was 2003, Knoob said. Trees and bushes were cleared, railroad ties relaid and repair work done.
The Texas State Railroad has two or three prospects that might use the connection for freight purposes.
One is Baze Chemical Co., which bought the old Vernon Calhoun meat packing plant on the east side of Palestine beside the track that has been closed for several years, Knoob said.
Freight cars would come in on Union Pacific tracks in Palestine and the company would call Texas State Railroad.
"We would run our locomotive over to pick them up and take them to the customer and leave them on the side track for them to empty and we would take them back to Union Pacific and they would send them off to where they would be reloaded," Knoob said.
It's almost impossible to make a profit strictly from operating an excursion train because of the seasonal nature of it and the expense of maintaining the track year-round, Knoob said.
"If you do really well, you break even and that's the best this railroad has ever done. It's gotten close to breaking even," he said. "If we can have a modest freight business, I think that will make the difference."
Although ridership is up, expenses are significantly higher because Iowa Pacific is running more trains, Knoob said. The new owner has saved some costs though. For example, Iowa Pacific changed the steam locomotive fuel from diesel to reclaimed motor oil, which is about two-thirds the price of diesel fuel.
One of the things that will be necessary to help turn the railroad into a profitable or break-even operation will be increasing ridership, Knoob said.
"I'm happy that ridership is rebounding," he said, voicing hope that ridership will eventually increase to 70,000. Ridership in 2012 totaled approximately 56,000.
"One of our big media and marketing things that we are working on is getting the word out that we are still here … we are still running trains," Knoob said.
But freight marketing is what will turn the Texas State Railroad into a solvent property and is how Iowa Pacific has made successes of all the other railroads it operates, Knoob said
Among the first railroads that Iowa Pacific acquired were a railroad in West Texas running freight out of Monahans into eastern New Mexico and a "down at the heels" railroad that ran westward out of Lubbock, Knoob said. Freight traffic on both has exploded, he said.
Iowa Pacific also acquired a freight-passenger railroad in Oregon that hauls freight and does well as an excursion train, Knoob said.
It took over a railroad in south central Colorado that primarily hauled volcanic rock and agriculture products, but worked on getting back some of the business that had been lost to trucking companies as well developed an excursion train, Knoob said.
Iowa Pacific has a terminal switching railroad in the Chicago metro area and a railroad in Cape Cod, Mass., that is both a freight train operation and an excursion railroad.
"We've got these operations all over the country," Knoob said. Iowa Pacific also has a couple of railroads in Great Britain.