What happened to the Zilker Park mini-train?
Zilker Park — the crown jewel of Austin's park system — used to be home to a miniature train amusement ride that delighted families for generations and became one of Austin's most iconic attractions.
"The first one I ever rode, I was about 10 years old maybe. It was really exciting," said Fred Britton, who was lounging at Zilker Park last week. "I've done it a bunch of times. I did it with my kids as well. Great history and memories of that little train."
But the little train hasn't run since May 2019, when a storm caused erosion that washed out the ground beneath some of the tracks.
A listener reached out to KUT's ATXplained project about the Zilker Zephyr: Why has it been almost four years since the tiny train toured Zilker Park?
After the erosion problems, the city handed control of the Zilker mini-train to the Austin Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that's helped raise more than $80 million for local parks since its founding in 1992. The city expected APF would quickly get the ride up and running again.
But APF had no experience running mini-trains and wound up buying a train that no longer works from a company that no longer exists.
The foundation paid almost $365,000 for the train and tracks and is now struggling to find someone who can fix the locomotive and coaches.
How it all began
A toy store owner and a railroad worker teamed up to create the first Zilker Park mini-train. The Austin Eagle, as it was called back then, started rolling on April 22, 1961.
The ride was a hit, according to press reports at the time.
"The grownups apparently enjoy it even more than the kids," wrote the Austin American-Statesman's Betty MacNabb. "Four adults actually climbed into one of the little compartments and rode together, jammed like sardines."
Fast forward to 1985. A lawyer named Charlie Beall bought the operation. A few months later, on Easter weekend, two trains were unveiled. Each was named after one of his daughters: Ashley and Jenny. The trains ran for about a decade.
Eventually, Beall's relationship with the city soured. Austin chose a new company to operate the Zilker mini-train: Texas Special.
Texas Special ran the train for more than 20 years until it, too, had a falling out with the city. Heavy rains washed away some of the embankment supporting the tracks in May 2019.
Texas Special wanted a five-year contract renewal to guarantee the company would bring in enough revenue to pay for the estimated $286,000 in repairs.
The city offered less than what Texas Special wanted. The company declined.
"While our decision to turn down the offer was not taken lightly, we had to take into consideration that ultimately it would not have been a good business decision for us," Texas Special said in a widely shared Facebook post.
Texas Special packed up their train and took it with them. The tracks, too. No train has run since.
Who would restore this beloved Austin institution?
The City Council turned to the Austin Parks Foundation. City staff said putting the contract to bid would take months. So, that process was sidelined, and APF was awarded a contract.
"This is a highly unusual case," Council Member Paige Ellis said before the unanimous council vote. "The intent for this is just to get [the mini-train] up and going."
The contract calls for APF to construct, maintain and own the train. All profits from the ride are to support efforts to improve parks across the city.
The City Council said a competitive bidding process to find a train operator could wait until after a new master plan for Zilker Park was adopted. That Zilker Park Vision Plan has still not been finalized. A public comment period ended earlier this month, and the feedback is being worked into a new draft plan that will go before the council.
The all-new Zilker Eagle
Under political pressure to deliver a train quickly, APF researched mini-train manufacturers and asked for references. The nonprofit soon hired a Phoenix-based company called Railway Factory to build an all-electric locomotive, six coaches and new train tracks and switches.
APF would ultimately pay Railway Factory $364,963.
Railway Factory built the tracks and would typically lay them for an additional fee. But the Parks Foundation had the tracks installed by Herzog, a heavy railroad contractor more used to working on real train tracks than amusement park rides.
APF renovated the train depot, painted the train tunnel under Barton Springs Road with a rainbow mural and added a wheelchair accessible platform for boarding.
A contest was held to choose a new name for the train. The winning entry was the Zilker Eagle — a throwback to the original name of the amusement ride.
But when APF took over stewardship of the Zilker Park mini-train, the organization had no experience operating such amusement rides and underestimated how hard it would be.
"Everybody knew it was going to be a pretty big project, but I don't think anybody anticipated it being this difficult," said Joy Casnovsky, who was hired a year ago in part to work on the Zilker train project. She said APF thought it could be a great way to raise money for the parks system.
A broken train
Problems with the Zilker Eagle began almost immediately after the new electric locomotive and coaches arrived on Jan. 17, 2022.
Railway Factory drove the train and coaches from Phoenix to Austin. A forklift placed the vehicles on the train tracks.
"We were all super excited," APF Park Design Director Katie Robillard said.
A few hours into the work, the Railway Factory team had to leave the job site. This is where the versions of events differ.
"I told them, 'Do not, I repeat, do not touch this train or allow anybody on it,'" said Robert Scott, who was managing director of the Railway Factory. "Well guess what, they decided they were going to park it up in their tunnel a few hundred yards away."
APF says the brightly colored locomotive began attracting lots of attention on a cloudless holiday weekend in a busy park. Robillard and two others were trying to keep people off the train and coaches, which stretched more than 70-feet long.
"A few hours into it, we were just like, 'We've got to get this train to a more secure location,'" Robillard said. "So we decided to move it, and we thought the best location to move it would be the storage tunnel."
On the way to the storage tunnel, the train got stuck in a switch.
APF says the wheels of the mini-train were too big for the switch. Scott says the train got stuck because of wood placed inside the switch to accommodate a pedestrian crossing.
When the APF team put the train in reverse, the differential broke. A differential is a set of gears that allows the wheels to turn at different speeds. Wheels were also damaged.
Scott accused APF of running the motor full throttle in reverse and messing up the transmission and wheels.
“Of course, the first thing we did was put it in reverse, and it didn’t move," Robillard said. "So at the end of the day, [Scott] had to disassemble it and take the gear box, and he also took the wheels back to Phoenix to repair them. The [motor] was in tact. But the gearbox was broken. So that’s what happened. It was not great.”
The Austin Parks Foundation said it found other problems with the train, though, and ultimately decided to cut ties with Railway Factory.
Scott claimed he was owed about $50,000 for additional travel and repairs, but instead accepted $10,000 and signed a nondisclosure agreement.
"You have to have this included in your agreement that you can't say one thing about my companies or me," Scott said he told APF. "They agreed, and they signed it."
The Austin Parks Foundation showed KUT a copy of the document with Scott's signature. The contract prevents either party from suing the other but doesn't have a nondisclosure clause. Scott was issued a final payment of $10,000.
Railway Factory no longer exists as a company. But it's still listed as an "active" entity in good standing by the Arizona Corporations Commission.
Can the train be fixed?
The Austin Parks Foundation is determined to get a mini-train running in Zilker Park. The nonprofit hired construction project management company Square One Consultants to help.
APF and Square One said new problems emerged with the train. For example, the electric forklift motor that powers the locomotive doesn't work.
"Last time I saw it [running] it was smoking and cracking," said Marisa Love with Square One.
Railway Factory said the Parks Foundation requested too many coaches for the strength of the engine. Scott said they had to reconfigure the locomotive several times to increase its strength.
"That was like hooking a Shetland pony to the Anheuser-Busch wagon," Scott said.
Love showed KUT the Zilker Eagle in storage and pointed to what she said were other design flaws. Among them, the coaches don't have brakes.
"They must have brakes," Love said. "It's a safety miss."
The locomotive has no door for a conductor. They would have to climb in from the top. The cars are not spaced far enough apart, Love said.
"The distance is a little short. I've been told that multiple times by everyone who's looked at this," she said.
APF said the mini-train failed an inspection required to obtain a compliance sticker from the Texas Department of Insurance, at least in part because the train took too long to come to a stop. The failed inspection meant the ride couldn't be insured.
Love and APF have reached out to mini-train manufacturers across the country. But so far, none have been willing to work on another company's train because of liability issues. They don't want to get sued if something goes wrong.
"We build our trains to a certain standard, and that one just doesn't meet our standards," said Anthony Marquez with California-based Western Train Co., a mini-train maker who flew out a team to inspect the Zilker Eagle. "If we brought that one back, we have to pretty much just rebuild the whole thing."
The other electric mini-train in Central Texas
In Leander, Cedar Rock Railroad has been operating a miniature train since 2005. Owner Ken Knowles also owns Texas Bells and Whistles, which builds electric mini-trains.
"It was never clear to me why the train was such an interest to Austin Parks Foundation. They don't have any experience operating an amusement concession, like a train," Knowles said. "And also, [it was unclear] why the Parks Department wasn't interested in putting the train out as a request for proposals as is typically done with concessions."
"I was disappointed, because I wanted to bid," he said.
Knowles was also invited to inspect APF's Zilker Eagle as part of the nonprofit's nationwide search for a train tinkerer to repair the ride.
"Bad choice of motor. Bad choice of gearing. No ethical manufacturer is going to touch the train without tearing it apart completely," he said.
Knowles still hopes to be involved in getting a mini-train up and running in Zilker Park. But he's pointed out other problems, including the continued threat of erosion.
The Austin Parks Foundation shortened the Zilker mini-train route to avoid the stretch along Lady Bird Lake where the 2019 erosion happened. The tracks now loop back at Lou Neff Point, which overlooks the downtown skyline.
Walking along the tracks today, the area near the Barton Creek Bridge underpass is washed over in soil.
"Even looking at where the track has been rebuilt today, those risks are still there," Knowles said.
So, what now?
The Austin Parks Foundation might not have had much experience operating amusement rides when it got the Zilker mini-train concession. But since then, the nonprofit has climbed a steep learning curve and learned the hard way about many peculiarities of the business.
"It's largely a hobby industry, and so there's various ways to do things," Casnovsky said. "There's not a book of like 'this is how you build the most perfect mini-train' that's codified by the Department of Transportation."
The existing fiberglass frame of the Zilker Eagle could possibly be gutted and replaced with working parts, or APF might have to start from scratch.
The Parks Foundation prefers to have an electric mini-train to avoid the toxic fumes that belch from diesel engines. But Love with Square One Consultants says they haven't ruled out running a diesel train, although that's considered a last resort.
Either way, parts and labor shortages stretch out the timeline.
"It's a very difficult challenge," Love said. "We want to give this back to the public as soon as possible."
Correction: This story has been corrected to clarify that the Texas Department of Insurance does not conduct inspections of amusement park rides. The inspections are done by independent inspectors hired by the insurance company and submitted to TDI to obtain a compliance sticker.