This story has been updated from a previous post.
The Texas State Railroad appears to be on track.
In late January, the tourist railroad announced via email that ticket sales were underway for excursions in 2017. The “Dogwood Special Brunch Train” was announced for April 2, followed by “Piney Woods Excursions” on April 28-29. In February, a Sunday run was scheduled for March 26, and other excursions are planned for the rest of the year, according to TSR’s website.
In December, an email announcing layoffs and the railroad’s closure from TSR’s former marketing manager, Janet Gregg, was distributed, but operators quickly refuted it. Ed Ellis, president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, the railroad’s operator, sent an email saying the message was unauthorized and TSR was only being idled in January and February.“Texas State Railroad is operating normally, which means there are no excursion trains in January or February,” Ellis said. “Excursion train operations will resume in March. In order to manage costs, headcount has been reduced for that period.”
Gregg told the Tyler Morning Telegraph that employees were told the railroad was closing.
Steve Gregory, Iowa Pacific’s executive vice president of marketing, said the layoffs are seasonal and the closure is not permanent.
“There have been layoffs,” he said. “We have had seasonal layoffs in the past. We were closed last January and February, and we’ll be running trains in March.”
IPH has operated TSR in a public-private partnership with the Texas State Railroad Authority (TSRA) since 2012.
In December, TSRA President Bob Goldsberry said the railroad typically shuts down for maintenance the first two months of the year. He spoke with Ellis and said he was assured that TSR will run its full 2017 schedule.
He said TSRA will work to get the employees reinstated.
“My thoughts and prayers are with those folks who were given notice,” he said. “As president of the Authority, we’re going to do everything in our power to get them back on the payroll and the railroad running as it should.”
The news followed a record ridership year, according to Gregg. She said TSR’s annual holiday excursion, the Polar Express, had the most riders ever and that overall ridership reached new levels in 2016. She indicated that the railroad’s operations are in good health.
“This is very disappointing, especially in light of the fact that we set a new record for ridership this year with both Polar Express and regular-season riders,” she said in her email. “The Texas State Railroad has been financially viable the past two years, so this is not a local issue.”
With ridership levels peaking, the 135-year-old railroad appears to have gotten back on track after years of financial struggles. The railroad, originally built by the Texas state prison system to transport hardwood used to fuel furnaces at the Rusk Penitentiary, has had two operators since the state shut it down in 2008 over mounting financial losses.
American Heritage Railways signed on as an operator in 2009 and was close to making a profit by 2012. A major fuel spill on the TSR grounds in 2011 proved costly, and the following year AHR sold the line to IPH.
IPH soon expanded operations to include freight, and ridership on excursion trains climbed.
In 1921, regular rail service was discontinued and the line was leased to the Texas & New Orleans (Southern Pacific Railroad Co.). The Texas Southeastern Railroad leased the line in the early 1960s and continued operations until 1969. Three years later, TSR was conveyed to the state, which reopened it in 1976 as a passenger line.