Railroad company: Layoffs at Texas State Railroad are seasonal

Published: Dec. 30, 2016 at 3:29 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 31, 2016 at 2:59 AM CST
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Officials with the Texas State Railroad say the demise of the historic train has been greatly exaggerated.

In an email to her media partners, former Texas State Railroad Marketing & Special Events manager Janet Gregg said the railroad that runs between Rusk and Palestine is shutting down effective immediately.

We spoke with past president and current member of the railroad authority board Steve Presley, and he said the railroad is not going out of business.

“This was a record year for the Polar Express,” Presley said.

Presley said there have been layoffs at the railroad. He said they knew the layoffs were coming, but did not know so many would be laid off. Presley said out of about 40 employees, 8 are left at this time. 

"We were devastated about the layoffs and have plans to meet next week and see if there is anything we can do. There were more layoffs this year than what have happened in the past. They did reduce staff more than we expected."

Presley said the railroad closes every year after the Polar Express in December and then re-opens in February.

An official with Iowa Pacific, the company with operates TSRR said the layoffs were just for the season.

"What we're doing is a seasonal closure," said Steve Gregory, the executive vice president of marketing. "Nothing more than that. We will be operating in March, as we did last year."

Gregory said he would not comment on why Gregg put out the conflicting information.

"I regret this information was distributed," Gregory said.

Gregory said the laid-off employees will be welcome back in March.

"Whatever it takes to run trains in March, we will have the adequate staff available," said Ed Ellis, the president of Iowa Pacific.

Ellis said some staff will be working on train cars in the off-season.

"The person who sent out that release was not authorized and was not accurate," Ellis said.

Laid off worker Stephen Miller agreed to talk to The East Texas News.

“We knew we had a company-wide meeting this morning,” Miller said. “We didn’t know what it was about. Our supervisor was there and he let us know about all of the highlights for the year and then he let us know the news that Iowa Pacific was pulling out.”

Presley said they have not pulled out completely to his knowledge, and has told the board the train will be open this coming spring.

Presley did say that Iowa Pacific is having some financial problems. He did not know all of the reasons for the financial problems but said the rain last April did a lot of damage to the railroad tracks that had to be repaired.

The other possible reason for the financial difficulties is the loans that are being repaid to Rusk and Palestine. Presley said when the railroad operations opened in 2007, the TTSR board borrowed $500,000 from both towns. At this time $115,000 of that loan is still owed to both East Texas cities.

The Texas State Railroad is a historic 25-mile railroad between Rusk and Palestine. Founded in 1881 by the state of Texas to haul freight, regular service on the line was ended in 1921. 

The board started to refurbish the rail line in 2006, a year after the site was given the endangered historical site status. The site has been popular ever since with school age children. The Polar Express Train is a very popular attraction during the holiday season.

According to a recent press release, 59,431 people rode The Polar Express this year. That number is up 2,817 from last year, a 4.7% increase. That number also beat the previous record set in 2014 by 1,247 riders.

It was also a record year with ridership for the regular season hit 23,059, an increase of 3,038 riders or 15.1% over the previous record, which was set in 2014.

“We do not have the totals yet but we probably made $3.5 million - $4 million,” Presley said. It was a great year. The children love the event. I brought my grandkids. In fact, I love to come out and just sit here on a bench and watch all the smiling faces of the children.”

Late Friday afternoon, board president Bob Goldsberry addressed the issue. Goldsberry said the board is committed to getting the laid off workers their jobs back and continuing the relationship with the East Texas community.

Miller was happy with his time at the railroad and hopes today was not the last day he worked on the site that brought joy to so many.

"You know, getting to work with familiar faces and friends that I have known for years, hopefully this won't be goodbye to any of them, but we will see,” Miller said.

According to the Texas State Railroad website:

In 2003 Texas State Representative Chuck Hopson led the way in proclaiming a resolution from the 78th Legislature of the State of Texas, designating the Texas State Railroad as the Official Railroad of Texas.
The state’s parks and wildlife department successfully ran the railroad until the management was privatized with a contract with American Heritage Railways in September of 2007. In August of 2012 American Heritage Railways sold the Texas State Railroad to Iowa Pacific Holdings. In addition to continuing passenger operations, Iowa Pacific Holdings opened the track to the main line in Palestine on November 1, 2012, to begin offering freight services.

Nate Smith, Communications and Best Practices Officer with the City of Palestine released the following statement:

“We are very happy to hear that Iowa Pacific is not permanently closing the Texas State Railroad, rather shutting down for maintenance as the railroad normally does. The railroad is normally closed in January and February for track and train maintenance and Iowa Pacific President Ed Ellis has assured us the railroad will run in March. The Texas State Railroad is central to Palestine’s rich history and vital to Palestine’s economy. We will continue to build on the strong relationship we currently enjoy with the Texas State Railroad and the Texas State Railroad Authority."

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