Texas State Railroad Offers Kids Free Rides Through Sept. 5

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RUSK, Texas — From now through Labor Day weekend, youngsters accompanied by a paying adult can ride the historic Texas State Railroad through the Piney Woods for free.

The "Kids Ride Free" promotion that began May 29 has enjoyed a robust ridership during the summer. So far this summer, close to 8,000 youngsters have ridden free, many of them brought by grandparents seeking a fun way to entertain their grandkids.

"We had a great time," said Lynn Phillips of Temple who took her 7 and 10-year-old grandsons to ride the historic East Texas steam train. "I hadn’t heard of the Texas State Railroad before and was so happy to read in the newspaper about kids getting to ride free."

The "Kids Ride Free" summer promotion, the first of its kind for the "Official Railroad of Texas," kicked off May 29 and lasts through Sept. 5. During the promotion, paying adults can treat children 12 years old and younger (as many as 5 kids per adult) to a free ride on the 123-year-old railroad operated as a state park by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Passengers board steam trains at vintage train depots in Rusk and Palestine state parks for the 50-mile, round-trip journey over 24 bridges through the hardwood creek bottoms. The trip takes 90 minutes to reach the opposite station, where visitors disembark to eat, browse the depot train stores and relax amid nature’s splendor. Riders then re-board for the return trip.

Gift shops in the Rusk and Palestine Train Stations prove popular with train enthusiasts who can choose from nostalgic items such as pocket watches and engineer caps to more modern collectibles like locomotive mugs and custom magnets. Adults can keep the kids’ hunger pangs at bay during the stopover with sandwiches, drinks and baked goods by Palestine’s famous Eilenberger’s German bakery. Soft drinks, snacks and Blue Bell ice cream are available on the train as well.

Trains run Saturdays and Sundays through Labor Day weekend and on to the end of the season, Nov. 21. Trains depart both depots at 11 a.m., arriving back at the station at 3:30 p.m.

For the second summer in a row, the railroad is operating a climate-controlled passenger coach on both the eastbound and westbound trains, according to Mark Price, the railroad’s assistant superintendent. Concession operations, too, have been improved and expanded for the railroad whose annual ridership, Price said, topped 42,000 in 2003.

The TSRR is the only steam railroad in the nation that runs two steam trains simultaneously each day of operation. One train, however, is being pulled by a 1947 diesel engine because of steam locomotive refurbishment projects currently under way.

Regular seating ticket prices for adults (persons 13 and older) are $11 one way and $16 round trip. Tickets for climate-controlled cars are $15 one way and $22 round trip for adults. Ticket offices open at 9 a.m. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling (800) 442-8951 (Texas only) or (903) 683-2561.

Steam Engine Restoration Shop tours, murder mysteries, starlight excursions and other special events are held periodically throughout the year at the Texas State Railroad. Currently, the railroad’s largest and smallest vintage steam engines are undergoing refurbishing at the shop in Rusk.

Convict labor built the original railroad in 1881 to serve the state-owned East Texas Penitentiary smelter in Rusk that produced cast iron for the state’s 19th century needs and helps to maintain the 32 miles of track right of way. TPWD acquired the railroad in 1972 after the rail line was abandoned by a private company, reinstating passenger service in 1976.