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Kids Ride the Rails for a Song

Enjoy the Texas State Railroad’s historic steam train excursion through East Texas.

By Rob McCorkle

Parents looking to offset higher gasoline prices and rising entertainment costs should consider taking their youngsters to ride the Texas State Railroad through the Pineywoods.The historic East Texas steam railroad has launched a “Kids Ride Free” summer promotion that runs through Labor Day weekend. Until Sept. 5, paying adults can treat children 12 years old and younger (as many as five per adult) to a free ride on the 123-year-old railroad, which is 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 or more modern collectibles such as locomotive mugs and custom magnets. Adults can keep the kids’ hunger at bay during the stopover with sandwiches, drinks and baked goods from Palestine’s Eilenberger’s German bakery. Soft drinks, snacks and ice cream are available on the train as well.

Park Manager Robert Crossman says the Texas State Railroad’s new promotion should prove especially popular with young fans of the Thomas the Tank Engine storybook character. “We offer a kid-friendly attraction that offers, weather permitting, a tour of the locomotive cab, where they can talk with the engineer, fireman and other members of the crew,” Crossman says. “Most are in awe of the railroad experience, whether they are eight or 80.”

For the second summer in a row, the railroad will be operating a climate-controlled passenger coach on both the eastbound and westbound trains, says Mark Price, the railroad’s assistant superintendent.

Trains run Saturdays and Sundays until June when they will begin operating Thursdays through Sundays, and remain on a four-day schedule through the end of July. Regular train excursions revert to a weekend-only schedule in August and continue until the end of the season, Nov. 21. Trains depart both depots at 11 a.m., arriving back at their originating stations at 3:30 p.m.

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. Texas lawmakers last year designated the TSSR as the Official Railroad of Texas. It is the only steam railroad in the nation that runs two 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.

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