The Western Group, a short-line railroad company based in Ogden, UT, has assumed operation of the Texas State Railroad, the company announced May 4. The Texas State Railroad Authority recently awarded Western Group the contract to operate the East Texas tourist line.
The move signals the end of Iowa Pacific Holdings’ operator agreement with TSRA.
TSRA board member Steve Presley said the agreement was signed Wednesday and Western Group kicked off operations by running a special school train. More runs are scheduled Friday through Sunday, and officials are to gather for a photo shoot Monday in Rusk.
In April, TSRA and Western Group, selected from four companies that submitted bids to run the railroad, reached a tentative agreement.
“They will be a welcome addition to the rich history of the Texas State Railroad,” Presley said in an email.
Western Group Vice President of Passenger Train Service Teresa Propeck said ridership on the first train, the Maydelle Turntable Run, was “very encouraging” considering the company took over operations just a few hours earlier. She said Western Group is proud to expand into the Lone Star State and eager to run trains the 25 miles between Palestine and Rusk.
“We don’t want to just be known as the new operator with new ideas,” she said, “but rather as the right operator with determination to give this railroad the exposure and recognition it deserves.”
Western Group is a small short-line consortium that also operates a tourist railroad along with the Cimarron Valley, Whitewater Division (Southwestern Railroad), Oregon Eastern and Clarkdale Central Arizona railroads. The company also has railcar service and railroad construction divisions.
Western Group’s Verde Canyon Railroad operates excursions in Arizona’s Verde Valley along a historic line built in 1912. Since 1990, Verde Canyon Railroad has developed an award-winning tourism business, and many of its concepts will be implemented on the Texas line.
“The bones of a great railroad are here,” Propeck said of TSR. “Our goal is to make Texans excited about their Official State Railroad when they come to ride.”
TSRA officials are impressed that the 20-mile Verde Canyon Railroad tourist line does more business than TSR with a much smaller audience.
The railroad north of Phoenix runs through the Arizona high desert from Clarkdale to Perkinsville and into Verde Canyon. The four-hour excursion features vintage cars pulled by two of the remaining 10 FP7 locomotives in North America.
“They have greater ridership than we do with one-third the market size,” Presley said. “Their market is about four million people within two hours. We’ve got 12 million people within two hours of us, and they’re doing more business than we are. We think they can apply some of their business techniques to our railroad and increase ridership.”
Western Group plans to build ridership on TSR’s reputation for running special event trains. Food service and shopping will be available at both the Rusk and Palestine depots, as well as storyboards detailing the region’s rich history.
“The Texas State Railroad Authority has done an unbelievable job of making sure that these classic locomotives and passenger cars maintain historic authenticity,” Propeck said. “It is our goal to improve this railroad by adding more comforts and amenities expected by riders in the 21st century. We will still be operating trains for special occasions, including Polar Express, but we will be enhancing the experience for passengers each and every day.”
Western Group plans to have improvements underway by the middle of May and completed by mid-June with the exception of a new rolling stock museum in Palestine.
“This project may take a little more time,” Propeck said, “but the ability to stand right next to these mammoth steam locomotives and tour a late-1890 wood-frame presidential car in mint condition will be worth the wait.”
Original locomotive mechanical drawings will be incorporated into the exhibit with other museum-quality memorabilia. Included in the planned upgrades are coach car renovations, new interiors for cabooses and the makeover of unique parlor observation car No. 1511, which has seated Texas governors and U.S. presidents dating to Lyndon Johnson.
Western Group’s freight experience is a plus, Presley said.
The company plans to work with Rusk and Palestine to develop rail freight opportunities along the line through its freight rail carrier, Texas & Eastern Railroad.
“Texas & Eastern is uniquely positioned to help lower the cost of transportation for businesses in the area,” said Bruce Carswell, senior vice president of Western Group. “The rail line already has available transload options and has developable rail-served property parcels available at multiple locations along the rail line.”
TSR has a new website, and toll-free reservation number, 855-632-7729.