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Austin says goodbye to the beloved Zilker Zephyr – for now

"After 22 years of serving the people of Austin the time has come for the Zephyr to say goodbye," Zephyr management said.

AUSTIN, Texas — After more than two decades of serving the kids who visit Austin's Zilker Park under its current vendor, the beloved Zilker Zephyr has taken its last ride. At least, for now.

The vendor made its announcement on Facebook Wednesday, saying its decision was due in part to erosion from heavy rains in 2019 and issues with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department.

A different company may take over the train operation in the future, according to the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD).

The train – operated under Texas Special Company – was closed in May 2019 due to storm damage, PARD said. Texas Special Company has not accepted the terms and conditions of the proposed professional services contract, and "as a result of that decision, PARD will issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a concessionaire to repair, manage, and operate a mini-train concession in Zilker Park." 

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"The Austin Parks and Recreation Department is saddened by the temporary closure of the Zilker Zephyr," the department said on Wednesday. "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 announcement from the Zephyr's management can be read in full below:

"After 22 years of serving the people of Austin the time has come for the Zephyr to say goodbye. First, we want to thank the people of Austin for sharing the last two decades with us during your visits to Zilker Park. We are proud to say as native Austinites and a family owned business, that these years have been a pleasure. We had a great experience in Zilker Park up until our closure of the Zephyr due to rainstorms in 2019.

As friends of the Zephyr, we feel we should share the reasons for our departure as it was met with many unfortunate roadblocks which ultimately led to our closure. The shutdown of the train was due to erosion along the river, caused by runoff along the hike and bike trail. The unprecedented rains required proactive action by the Zephyr management that started in May 2019 through October, we had countless meetings with parks and recreation staff and our professional engineer that we personally hired. During this time we developed options and a final solution to get the Zephyr back on track.

However, even though we and Parks and recreation still had a one(1) year option to exercise and extension, the Zephyrs contract with parks and recreation would come to an end before the project could be completed. Knowing this, in May 2019 we had discussed with Parks and recreation staff a five(5) extension to our contract and they had stated to us they were "committed to providing a quick turnaround."

In October 2019, despite us spending countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars on designs and preparing paperwork for Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and City of Austin permits, all our efforts were met with us getting told that instead of allowing us to make the repair and offering us a contract extension, both the Concessions and Contracts committee and Parks and recreations board voted on putting the Zephyr contract our to bid. However, the parks and recreation director still had the opportunity to decide to offer us a contract extension or choose to put the train contract out to bid. This was an about face on part of the staff. Needless to say misleading.

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On October 24, we reached out to parks and recreation director to request a meeting with her to explain the details of our repair and to justify our five(5) year extension in order to complete this project. City staff informed us that there weren't any meetings for that week and that we would be kept in contact to schedule another meeting at a later time. This was deceptive we never heard back from staff. So we made another attempt to schedule a meeting and never had a return call or email response. We finally received an email in December from the park director with a "final offer" contract, which was a guaranteed three(3) year with two(2) one year options. 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.

We are sorry we have to say goodbye like this because the Zilker Zephyr has been our family's love and passion, and we know the people of Austin and around the world loved it as well. Again, thank you for allowing us to serve you the last 22 years."

According to the parks department, the 2019 weather caused severe erosion to an embankment supporting part of the train's track. Staff met with the train operator at the time, as well as with other City departments, to evaluate the safety of the eroded bank. They deemed the track unsafe and determined that a licensed engineer needed to repair it in order for the Zephyr to continue operating. The City said it closed a portion of the track, fenced it off and worked with the vendor to evaluate further options.

When the storm occurred, the City said less than a year remained on the vendor's contract. However, the department said it planned to re-bid the service.

"As with other long-term concessions, the department planned to re-bid the service to ensure the public receives the best services possible while providing all vendors an opportunity to manage operations," Austin PARD said. "This could include improvements to the facility and/or additional services within a new contract."

According to the contract, the vendor must make all repairs. Thus, the erosion repairs would have required a longer period than what remained on its contract.

READ: A history of the Zilker Zephyr

Originally named the Zilker Park Eagle, this miniature train made its first run on April 22, 1961. Thedepot (initially painted pink), route, and tunnel are all original. The original engine was manufactured inBuffalo, NY by Allen Herschold Manufacturing Company. The gasoline engine was designed to appear onthe outside like an engine built in 1865.

"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," said Austin PARD. "Unfortunately, the department was unable to come to an agreement with the vendor for a new professional services contract."

Since then, Austin PARD said it has been researching public, train amusement attractions to ensure a competitive bidding process for future operations. It will also release a request for proposals for the management and operation of the train by the end of spring 2020.

"The department is working as expediently as possible to procure a new vendor, and thanks the previous vendor for their service to Austin," Austin PARD said.

The Zephyr was the successor to the Zilker Park Eagle, which took its last ride around the tracks in 1996. The Eagle made its first run around the tracks on April 22, 1961.

In Jan. 1997, the City of Austin sponsored a "name that train" contest for the new kiddie ride, with Zephyr chosen from 600 entries. At the time, more than 100 people suggested the name Zephyr.

The Zephyr was the first diesel-powered streamlined train in the U.S.

"The Zilker Zephyr will chug on," Mayor Steve Adler said on Wednesday. "It is an institution that contributes to the uniqueness of Austin. The City is already working to find a new operator, and engaged in discussions to make necessary repairs and restore service."

VIDEO: What it takes to keep Austin's Zilker Park looking fresh

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