What officials believe will be a slow recovery began in early March with the restart of service on the Texas State Railroad. Ridership the first three weeks, normally one of the busiest times of the year during spring break, was noticeably lower.
TSR began running a single train from Rusk to Palestine as promised by Iowa Pacific Holdings on March 4. Piney Wood Excursions on the vintage tourist railroad ran only partially full.General Manager Greg Udolph said the effects of an unauthorized press release distributed by the former marketing manager in late December, stating that the railroad had been closed and many of its employees fired, hasn’t helped. IPH refuted the release and said the railroad was taking two months off before resuming service in March. The layoffs were seasonal, the company said.
“There’s been so much bad press,” Udolph said. “I wouldn’t say (ridership) was significantly down, but I don’t have numbers now. Usually during spring break, we have pretty good trains, but they’re running kind of empty now.”
TSR is expected to run a full schedule through the spring, including extras like the Dogwood Special Brunch Train on April 2 and Easter trains April 8-9 and 14-15. Sunday matinee trains are planned for the last Sunday of every month. By mid-March, the Dogwood Special was 75 percent sold out.
Udolph said one train consist will continue to run until ridership picks up for the summer. In June a second train and crew are expected to be added.
Most of the employees who were laid off at the end of the year are back, he said. About 20 crew are handling daily operations.
“We have right now our core group back. Other jobs will be put out for applications when they become available.”
During TSR’s idle time in January and February, nine employees were retained to perform maintenance and ensure a quick start-up in the spring.
Even though trains are running, the future under IPH remains unclear. The Texas State Railroad Authority board said in March that it’s looking for a new operator. IPH reportedly owes TSR $1.9 million and has until the end of March to clear the debt.
On March 15 the board unanimously agreed to request proposals, according to a report in the Palestine Herald. Board member Steve Presley said earlier this year that he hoped TSR could find another operator and that a handful of candidates had already inquired.
Presley said a new operator would be asked to make a seamless transition in service if IPH cannot comply.
On March 1, IPH withdrew from its agreement with the Indiana Dept. of Transportation to provide equipment for use on Amtrak’s Hoosier State train, which runs between Indianapolis and Chicago. In a story published by Progressive Railroading, CEO Ed Ellis said IPH was “reducing marginal business units to focus on its core business.”
According to an Amtrak spokesman, IPH provided equipment for nearly two years under the agreement while Amtrak operated trains. During that time, Amtrak’s ridership and revenue exceeded that of previous years, due in part from higher business class fares. Ticket revenue rose 14 percent.
For now, Udolph, who has been general manager for about a year, said TSR will stay the course. He said the railroad must overcome perceptions that it wasn’t running even before events unfolded, although the railroad enjoyed record ridership in 2016.
TSR has not replaced its marketing manager but has gotten some help promoting rides from the Palestine Visitor Center.
“We’ve been trying hard to keep things going, trying to stay positive and keep trains running,” Udolph said. “We need to market and makes sure every window is open. Before this mess, a lot of people told me they didn’t know we were open. It’s not easy.”