One of Austin’s Teeniest Attractions is Coming Back in a Big Way

For 60 years, one of Austin’s most beloved attractions was a tiny little train that ran on a very short track and carried just a couple dozen kids and their parents. Dubbed the Zilker Zephyr, the train ran along the southeast side of Zilker Park, the city’s crown jewel of outdoor spaces, until 2019, when torrential rainfall caused part of the track to unceremoniously fall off a cliff and into the Colorado River below. (No one was on the train.) 

For some, it signaled the end of an era, a fitting metaphor for a city that’s grown too big to deserve such a charming relic. For others, it was part of Austin’s history, a cultural touchstone worthy of restoration. 

Keeping the train was a non-negotiable for the Austin Parks Foundation (APF), a nonprofit that helps bridge funding gaps for Austin’s parks and green spaces. Composed of many longtime Austinites and Longhorns, including CEO Colin Wallis, BA ’96, Life Member; Chief Mission Officer Ladye Anne Wofford, ’03; CFO Jayna Burgdorf, MBA ’95, Life Member; and Chief Strategy Officer Allison Watkins, MA ’04, the group understood how important the Zephyr had become to locals and tourists alike. 

“The train is a very popular amenity at Zilker Park. My kids have ridden it; everyone’s kids have ridden on it,” Wallis explains. “We reached out to the parks department and said, ‘We don’t want this off-line for a long time.’” 

Wallis told the Austin Parks & Recreation Department that the APF was on “standby with a blank check,” but quickly learned that it was going to take a lot more to get the Zephyr back on track.   

Like most things involving city government, this seemingly innocuous children’s ride was caught up in a bit of red tape. 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 fee and a portion of the revenue and pocketed the rest of the proceeds. With their 20-year contract coming to an end just as the Zephyr was derailed, the Rodriguez family decided to step away, taking their train and tracks along with them. 

After a City Council resolution passed, the director of Austin Parks reached out, and asked APF if they would be willing to take over the rebuilding of the Zilker train, a project the nonprofit took on good faith (as of press time, there still is no official contract with the city). 

“It’s a really positive, revenue-generating entity once it’s up and running,” Wallis says. “So, we said we’ll run the train, and whatever [the train] nets we’ll put back into Zilker Park.”  

And just like that, APF was in the miniature passenger train business

A business, it turns out, that can be rather challenging—something APF quickly learned.  

“We were asking ourselves: ‘Who lays down miniature tracks?’” Watkins says with a laugh. “We’re park experts, not train experts, but we’ve become train experts.” 

Though the mini track question loomed, the nonprofit did know they wanted a new train, eventually finding an Arizona manufacturer to custom build it in a retro, 1940s-style design. They also wanted to bring operations up to date, starting with an inclusive design to make the train and platform ADA-compliant, as well as credit card and mobile purchase options for buying tickets. CapMetro, which runs the city’s public transit system, signed on to build out the onsite “ticket depot,” and local jewelry maven Kendra Scott agreed to sponsor the underground tunnel signaling the end of the ride. 

Then there was the name. Media coverage of the train’s derailment was widespread, as was the public outrage that followed. To help spark enthusiasm for the project, APF launched a public renaming campaign, eventually whittling 700 ideas down 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 runs. 

Though APF hopes the spirit of the original Zephyr remains, when the Zilker Eagle opens this fall, many things will be different—beginning with the route. To stave off erosion, the tracks have been pushed away from the river, a design decision that means rerouting Lou Neff Road, the main loop around the park. And unlike the former track, which sliced across the hike-and-bike trail, an annoyance to both hikers and bikers alike, the train will turn around at the lake, offering passengers a stunning vista of the Austin skyline. 

One thing that will not change is the low price, which will be $5 for adults, $3 for kids. APF is also partnering with local companies to offer free evening rides and hopes to implement programming to convince those without kids to come aboard, too. 

“We want everyone from all parts of Austin and visitors to come enjoy,” she says, 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

 
 
 

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