Current operators of Zilker Zephyr say goodbye after 22 years

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The current operators behind the beloved green train, the Zilker Zephyr, are saying goodbye after 22 years of serving the patrons of Zilker Park, according to a post on their Facebook page Wednesday.

The City of Austin said that doesn’t mean the train is going away, they will soon be accepting bids for vendors for the train. The city’s intention is for a train to still be at the park, it just will likely be operated by a different vendor.

The train was forced to shut down in May of 2019 due to erosion along the river caused by heavy rain. The vendor operating the Zephyr began working with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department to get the train back on track.

According to Zilker Zephyr’s Facebook post, their contract with the Parks and Recreation Department would end before the repair project could be completed. The vendor requested a five-year extension to the contract, but according to the post, in December the park director made a “final offer” of a guaranteed three-year extension with two one-year options.

The group behind the train said they decided to turn down the offer because three years would not match the financial investment needed for the repairs.

“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. Due to the amount of money we had projected we would have to invest for the repair – we understood only a contract with a guaranteed five years would make financial sense for our level of investment,” Zilker Zephyr said in its Facebook post.

(Courtesy of Austin History Center)

After the news broke, Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan made a Facebook post saying the train itself is not going away.

“The Zilker train is not going away, y’all… the current operator wants a long-term no-bid contract and is falsely representing that the train will go away otherwise,” Flannigan wrote in his post.

In a statement Wednesday, the City of Austin said, in part:

“The Austin Parks & Recreation Department is saddened by the temporary closure of the Zilker Zephyr. The Zephyr is more than a train ride through Zilker Park, it’s part of Austin’s history and a cultural institution. The Department takes the operation of this beloved amenity seriously and is working to secure a contract for future operations.”

The City also said that when the 2019 storm happened, there was less than a year remaining under the train’s vendor contract. The City says that as it has done with other longterm concessions, they planned to re-bid the service — if necessary safety repairs were made — but that the vendor was required to make all repairs.

Because of the small amount of time left to the vendor’s contract, making erosion repairs would have required longer than the vendor’s remaining contract period, the city explained.

“In consideration of the additional repair costs, the Department worked in good faith with the vendor on an agreement to continue operations while preserving future bidding opportunities,” the City said in the release.

The City says that while it was unable to reach an agreement with the specific vendor, it is “working as expediently as possible to procure a new vendor.”

Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department will make a formal Request for Proposals for new vendors in late Spring of 2020.

The train has existed in other forms besides the current Zilker Zephyr. It was put into operation in 1961 as the Zilker Eagle, the year after the nearby Barton Springs Pool became integrated and open to all the citizens of Austin, the Barton Springs Master Plan explains.

Fond Memories of the train

11-year-old Austinite Wyatt Carr poses for a photo at the Zilker Zephyr train. (Photo Courtesy Kathy Carr).

As the news of the changes behind the train’s vendor spread, several people made the trek to Zilker Park to take a picture with the train before any changes could be made.

Among the visitors Wednesday was 11-year-old Wyatt Carr, who has been riding the Zephyr since he was two or three years old.

Regarding the news about the train’s vendor, Carr said, “it makes me a little bit sad, but I am glad that it’s probably going to be reopened soon.”

He thinks he’s been on the Zephyr more times than most people in Austin

“There’s not a lot of trains like this,” he said.

Young Wyatt Carr poses for a photo at the Zilker Zephyr train. He says he has been on the train more than 200 times. (Photo Courtesy: Kathy Carr).

“Whenever I was really little, my older brothers and sister, they would always go to school and I would get really sad, so I would come over here and ride the train,” Carr explained. “I got to see everything and I liked always just going around the park and doing stuff like that.”

In Carr’s view, you never get too old to enjoy riding the train around Zilker Park.

For people who’ve never been on this train, he tells them, “I think it’s a lot of fun and if it reopens they should come and ride on it.”

Historic photos of the Zilker train

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