One of Austin’s youngest attractions is making a comeback
For 60 years, one of Austin’s most beloved attractions was a tiny train that ran on a very short track and carried only a few dozen children and their parents. Dubbed the Zilker Zephyr, the train ran along the southeast side of Zilker Park, the crown jewel of the city’s outdoor spaces, until 2019 when torrential rains caused unceremonious part of the track. fall off a cliff and in the Colorado River below. (There was no one on the train.)
For some, it marked the end of an era, an apt metaphor for a city that had grown too big to deserve such a charming relic. For others, it was part of Austin’s history, a cultural touchstone worth restoring.
Keeping the train was a non-negotiable for the Austin Parks Foundation (APF), a non-profit organization that helps fill funding gaps for Austin’s parks and green spaces. Comprised of many longtime Austinites and Longhorns, including CEO Colin Wallis, BA ’96, Life Member; Chief of Mission Ladye Anne Wofford, ’03; Chief Financial Officer Jayna Burgdorf, MBA ’95, Life Member; and Chief Strategy Officer Allison Watkins, MA ’04, the group understood just how important the Zephyr had become to locals and tourists alike.
“The train is a very popular piece of equipment at Zilker Park. My kids rode it; everyone’s kids have used it,” says Wallis. “We contacted the parks department and said, ‘We don’t want this offline for a long time. “”
Wallis told the Austin Department of Parks and Recreation that the APF was “on hold with a blank check,” but quickly learned that it would take a lot more to get the Zephyr back on track.
Like most things involving city government, this seemingly innocuous kiddie ride got caught up in a bit of bureaucracy. The miniature train is one of four concessions in the park, all of which the City of Austin contracts out to vendors. The Zephyr was run by the Rodriguez family, who in exchange for running the train, paid the city a royalty and part of the revenue and pocketed the rest of the proceeds. As their 20-year contract was coming to an end as the Zephyr derailed, the Rodriguez family decided to walk away, taking their train and tracks with them.
After a city council resolution was passed, the Austin Parks manager reached out and asked the APF if they would be willing to take on the rebuilding of the Zilker train, a project the organization nonprofit made in good faith (at press time, there is still no official contract with the city).
“It’s a very positive and revenue-generating entity once it’s up and running,” says Wallis. “So we said we’d run the train, and whatever [the train] nets that we will put back in Zilker Park.
And just like that, APF was in the model passenger train business.
It turns out that a business can be quite tough, which the APF quickly learned.
“We were like, ‘Who is laying miniature tracks?’ laughs Watkins. “We are park experts, not train experts, but we have become train experts.”
Although the mini-track issue loomed, the nonprofit knew it wanted a new train, eventually finding an Arizona manufacturer to custom-build it in a retro, 1940s-style design. They also wanted to update operations, starting with an inclusive design to make the train and platform ADA compliant, along with credit card and mobile shopping options for purchasing tickets. CapMetro, which runs the city’s transit system, has pledged to build the “ticket depot” on site, and local jeweler Kendra Scott has agreed to sponsor the underground tunnel signaling the end of the ride.
Then there was the name. Media coverage of the train derailment was widespread, as was the public outrage that followed. To help generate enthusiasm for the project, the APF launched a public name change campaignultimately narrowing down 700 ideas to a winner: the Zilker eagle. As train enthusiasts may know, the name is a nod to the Texas Eagle, the line connecting San Antonio to Chicago, a route that Amtrak still operates.
While APF hopes the spirit of the original Zephyr lives on, when the Zilker Eagle opens this fall, a lot will be different, starting with the itinerary. To prevent erosion, the tracks have been moved away from the river, a design decision that means the rerouting of Lou Neff Road, the main loop around the park. And unlike the old track, which crossed the hiking and biking trail, a nuisance for hikers and cyclists, the train will turn around at the edge of the lake, giving passengers a breathtaking view of the skyline. from Austin.
One thing that won’t change is the low price, which will be $5 for adults and $3 for children. The APF is also partnering with local businesses to provide free evening rides and hopes to implement programs to convince those without children to come on board as well.
“We want everyone from all parts of Austin and visitors to come and enjoy it,” she said, later adding, “Everyone needs a little something to look forward to. A little ray of sunshine.”
After this past year, it’s hard to argue with that.
Credits (from top): Austin Parks Foundation, Austin History Center