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Historic Railroad To Offer Kids Free Ride Again This Summer
RUSK, Texas — Parents and grandparents seeking an inexpensive and fun way to entertain youngsters during summer vacation should consider climbing aboard a steam train for a ride through the East Texas piney woods.
The Texas State Railroad's "Kids Ride Free" promotion kicks off June 1 and runs through Sept. 30. Each paying adult can treat up to five children 12 years old and younger to a free ride on the 124-year-old railroad operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Round-trip tickets for children normally cost $10.
Persons 13 and older pay a $16 round-trip fare for regular seating and $22 for a climate-controlled railcar.
Last year's special promotion proved a great success, according to Mark Price, TSRR assistant manager. He said that compared to summer 2003 statistics ridership more than doubled to 26,403 and total park revenues jumped by $146,698 during last year's promotional period. Ticket sales, gift shop sales and concessions all recorded sizable revenue boosts as well.
"The Kids Ride Free program," Price said, "has been a win-win system that has given families an opportunity to ride and enjoy the railroad at a discounted rate while helping out the state of Texas. Everybody seemed to leave here happy. We're staffed up and ready."
Price attributed much of the increased interest in the Texas State Railroad to grandparents who were hosting grandchildren during summer vacation. In addition, the railroad saw a number of church groups, such as Vacation Bible School, and summer YMCA youth camp attendees taking advantage of the bargain.
Ida Stokes of Dallas heard about the TSRR's special promotion and took her three grandsons, ages 9, 11 and 13, to ride the train that steams through wooded hills and over 24 bridges between depots in Rusk and Palestine. "When I saw the Kids Ride Free ads in Dallas, I couldn't wait to bring my grandkids," she said.
Price said the special promotion helped increase annual ridership from 41,000 in 2003 to 58,000 in 2004. As a result, TPWD has decided to make "Kids Ride Free" an annual program.
Passengers board steam trains at Victorian-style train depots in Rusk and Palestine state parks at 11 a.m. for a 50-mile round trip through hardwood creek bottoms. The trip takes 90 minutes to reach the opposite station, where visitors disembark to eat, peruse depot gift shops full of train-related souvenirs and enjoy the outdoors before reboarding. This summer, visitors can view a new exhibit about the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster on display at the Rusk depot. Western re-enactments spice up activities each weekend at the Palestine depot.
Regular train excursions take place Thursdays through Sundays in June and July and Saturdays and Sundays only beginning in August. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling (800) 442-8951 (Texas only) or (903) 683-2561. State parks adjacent to the Rusk and Palestine depots offer camping and picnicking facilities. Rusk State Park has full-hookup camping and group picnic pavilions; Palestine State Park offers water-only camping sites and a shaded picnic area. Nearby Mission Tejas State Park in Grapeland offers camping as well. For Texas state park information, call (800) 792-1112.
The Texas State Railroad is one of the nation's few steam railroads that runs two steam trains simultaneously each day of operation. Special events, such as murder mysteries, starlight excursions and Steam Engine Restoration Shop tours are held periodically throughout the year. The railroad does not operate in January and February.
Convict labor built the original railroad in 1881 to serve the state-owned East Texas Penitentiary smelter in Rusk that manufactured cast iron for the state's 19th century needs and today helps maintain the 32 miles of track right-of-way. TPWD acquired the railroad in 1972 and reinstated passenger service in 1976.
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