Final Bargaining Under Way For New Texas State Railroad Operator
By BETTY WATERS
PALESTINE -- Final negotiations are nearing completion for transfer of operation of Texas State Railroad to a new company, Steve Presley, president of the Texas State Railroad Authority, said.
In the latest round of talks, meetings of the authority's board are scheduled today and/or Monday for the purpose of cleaning up any details that might remain to make sure the contract gets transferred over, Presley said.
There's "just a couple of little minor paperwork deals" to be worked out, he added.
"At this point, we don't see anything big. ... I don't see anything holding it back," Presley said.
In recent months, discussions and negotiating sessions have been under way among the authority's board, American Heritage Railways Inc., the current operator of the railroad, and Iowa Pacific Holdings LLC, a company interested in assuming operation of the railroad.
Iowa Pacific's original target for the transfer was July 1. Presley said now he does not anticipate it happening this weekend but that it will probably get done next week.
"I think we will have more information next week develop on them taking over," Presley said.
Presley anticipates Iowa Pacific will announce then its view of how it intends to run the railroad.
In a recent phone interview, Kevin W. Busath, vice president of strategic planning for Iowa Pacific, said, "It would be our intention to continue the existing events and build on them."
But he said it would be premature while contract negotiations still were in progress to talk about what Iowa Pacific may add to the operations of Texas State Railroad.
The tourist train has been run by American Heritage Railways since 2007. American Heritage focused on expanding tourist events and attractions that drew more riders.
When American Heritage took over operation of Texas State Railroad from the state, it was losing about $2 million a year and had about 40,000 paying customers. By 2011, the company had brought the railroad to a near break-even situation and ridership had peaked at 82,000 in 2010.
American Heritage attracted passengers with numerous special events and trains such as The Polar Express, a Memorial Day Armed Forces event, a Valentine dinner train, the Great Pumpkin Patch Express, Peanuts the Eager Beagle and others.
Iowa Pacific President Ed Ellis issued a statement in May revealing the company has plans to start freight service on the spur tracks into Palestine as well as continue the tourist side of the operation of Texas State Railroad.
At that time, he said, "We are very excited about this opportunity to build on the substantial achievements that American Heritage has made, in cooperation with the Texas State Railroad Authority, in improving the Texas State Railroad's infrastructure and in developing the tourist ridership."
He added, "It is our intention to continue this progress by further developing passenger services, reconnecting the railroad with the national rail network at Palestine and implementing freight service."