Longtime readers of these musings know that I am a HUGE “railfan” – that is to say, I LOVE trains! It’s been a hobby – really, more of a passion – of mine since I was a toddler. In fact, my mom used to tease me by telling me that I could say “choo-choo” before I ever learned to say “mama.” My brothers and I used to play with a push-it-along toy train set with snap-together track – kind of an early 60s version of a Brio kid’s playset but made out of plastic by a company called “Child Guidance.”
And of course, a trip to our grandparent’s home in Grayburg, between Beaumont and Houston, was never complete without walking down to the tracks, to watch for trains on the Missouri Pacific and put a penny or two on the rails to be flattened by the passing locomotives as they went thundering by. We would always wave at the crew as they passed, and it was important for the conductor in the caboose to wave back.
All of that to say, I enjoy trains. I like to watch them going by, I like to read about them, and I like to look at pictures of them, especially old, historical photos. And I really like riding trains when I have the chance, which brings us to the point of this week’s column – if you’re making plans for a family trip this summer, you should think about going somewhere to ride a train.
Two of the most famous tourist trains in North America are both remnants of the old Denver & Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Railroad: the Durango & Silverton in Southwestern Colorado, or the Cumbres & Toltec, running from Chama, New Mexico, to Antonito, Colorado. They are both wonderful rides, with lovingly-preserved vintage steam locomotives and passenger coaches, running through some of the most gorgeous scenery imaginable. But Texas has some terrific tourist lines of its own, available much closer to home (and at more reasonable prices!).
The Austin Steam Train Association is a good example. Their Hill Country Flyer, for example, runs from Cedar Park, near Austin, through part of the Hill Country northwest of the capital city, and passes through beautiful, rolling hills and across several creeks, to a leisurely lunch stop Burnet before heading back, while pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive. Their annual “Bluebonnet Festival Flyer” (held this past weekend) is always sold out well in advance, but they have multiple special trains throughout the year. Visit their website at austinsteamtrain.org for more information.
The Grapevine Vintage Railroad runs between Grapevine and the Stockyards, north of Downtown Ft. Worth, along the route of the old Cotton Belt Railroad. They have three rides available, at different prices and with different destinations – the longest runs from the depot in Grapevine for the 90-minute ride to the Stockyards. You then have about two hours to explore the area around historic Exchange Avenue in Ft. Worth before the ride back to Grapevine. The pride of the GVRR is their antique steam locomotive, “Puffy,” built in 1896 and originally operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad. It has been out of service for the last several years for maintenance but is expected to be back pulling trains again sometime this year. Go to gvrr.com to learn more or buy tickets.
Of course, the granddaddy of all Texas tourist trains is the Texas State Railroad, running between Palestine and Rusk, in deep East Texas. This line has been carrying folks through dense forests since the late 70s and has a fleet of vintage steam engines as well as early, first-generation diesels – including (for display purposes only) the giant #610, a massive 2-10-4 “Texas” type steamer formerly owned and operated by the Texas & Pacific Railway and built to singlehandedly conquer the steep grade of Baird Hill, east of Abilene, while pulling a mile-long freight train.
Today, the TSRR uses a mixture of steam and diesel locomotives to pull visitors along its route through the Piney Woods. Depending on the time of year, you may see beautiful crimson clover or flowering dogwood trees, and always the towering pines, all while hearing the steady “CHUG-a-chug-a-CHUG-a-chug-a” of the steam engine as it climbs the gentle hills and that lonesome whistle as it echoes through the trees. It is an experience not to be missed! Go to texasstaterailroad.net for tickets and to learn more.