Texas Travel

Time Travel to the Old West on These 3 Historic Train Rides in Texas

By Peter Simek 12.5.19

John Ford’s classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, opens with a single memorable shot. Against the stark backdrop of a rolling desert landscape, the long black stretch of a steam locomotive barrels into view, spilling great puffs of gray smoke into the sky. For John Ford, the image is more than just an exciting way to open a Western. The train is a symbol for the encroachment of America’s steady march West and the taming of the wild frontier.

Today, three train rides in Texas still capture this historic significance.

Railroad History

Trains were pivotal to the growth of Texas. They helped bring settlers and commerce, and great cities and small towns alike sprouted up along their routes. The route of the Southern Pacific Railroad through south Texas is still dotted with remnants of water stops that sprang into towns before fading again into ghost towns. Today’s urban corridors follow the routes of railroads that turned tiny towns into major economic centers or, when bypassing communities, left them to wither on the vine.

Today, trains still play a large role in Texas trade; Amtrak offers a few passenger rail routes; and Dallas and Houston are pursuing the development of a new high-speed rail link. But if you want to experience the romance, allure, and adventure of early railroading, then head to these towns, where steam locomotives still puff clouds into the Texas sky.

Texas State Railroad

From March through December, the Texas State Railroad offers one of the best historical railroad experiences in Texas. The journey begins at one of two historical depots, in Palestine or Rusk, where you can find cafes, gift shops, and exhibits that help tell the story of the East Texas rail route that was built by prisoners to haul lumber out of the Piney Woods.

Once aboard the rail’s vintage 1920s rail cars, steam or diesel locomotives (depending on the trip and the season) take passengers on a four-hour ride through the heart of the Piney Woods. A concession car serves up snacks, beverages, and socializing, and passengers can choose from a variety of classes to travel in, from open-air coach to luxurious presidential and caboose cars. Real train fanatics can book a chance to ride along with the conductor in the front of the train.

Grapevine Vintage Railroad

The Grapevine Vintage Railroad’s history traces all the way back to 1896. That’s when “Puffy,” the railroad’s steam engine, rolled off the factory line in Paterson, New Jersey, before being shipped west to haul passengers and freight along the Southern Pacific Railroad in California. In 1976, “Puffy” was one of the locomotives that helped initiate the Texas State Railroad Excursion, and in 1993, she found her way to the North Texas town of Grapevine, where she currently pulls four luxurious Victorian coaches on three train journeys.

The most popular trip is the Cotton Belt Route, a five-hour round-trip excursion that takes riders from historic downtown Grapevine to the Fort Worth Stockyards. Shorter journeys include the one-hour Grapevine Excursion and the Trinity River Excursion, which runs 45 minutes round-trip to give a taste of the experience. Check with the railroad for specially themed holiday rides, including the North Pole Express, Halloween-themed rides, and a jazz train.

The Hill Country Flyer

The Austin Steam Train Association began operating its historical rail service in 1992 after a confluence of lucky breaks landed both a steam engine and a historic rail line in the hands of the people of Austin. The steam locomotive was given to Austin in 1956 by the Southern Pacific as the railroad retired its steam cars for diesel-powered engines. For years, it sat on display in Austin’s downtown Brush Square, and then, in the 1970s, the Southern Pacific ended operations around Austin and sold the city a stretch of rail from Austin to Marble Falls. In 1989, the idea was hatched to unite locomotive and steel and create a historic train route like no other.

Today, the nonprofit association runs trains most Saturdays on a 66-mile round-trip journey through the heart of the Texas Hill Country, passing through canyons and across wooden trestle bridges on its way to Burnet. Passengers can book seats in a range of classes, including all-ages coach rides and adult-only luxury lounge cars. Once in Burnet, passengers enjoy a two-hour layover, during which they can explore the historic town square and grab a bite to eat.

Pint-Size Locomoting

For families who want to experience the feeling of the rails, there are a variety of spots around the state where you can find miniature train rides that will delight children — as well as the young at heart.

For more historical Texas adventures, check out the East Texas music highway.

© 2019 Texas Farm Bureau Insurance