All Aboard for Train Town Texas

Written by Kay Boothe

November 17, 2021

Located east of Austin, Taylor is one of the Amtrak stops between Austin and Fort Worth with continuing service to Chicago. Credit: Catherine Parker

By Catherine Parker

The blast of the horn acts like a beacon for relentless spirits and many, like myself, stop in their tracks and listen to the distinctive sound as the Amtrak’s engine pulling into town. Living in a train town for a nearly two decades, the horn signals its immanent arrival in my small town station in Central Texas.

Grabbing the train blocks from my house has always been on my to do list. Though it was the 50th anniversary of Amtrak that prompted me into action. With a $10 ticket bought online, I downloaded the Amtrak app and packed up my daypack for a quick excursion north to another train town.

Celebrating 50 years of Amtrak Service

As a kid, my brother was a train fanatic. So my mom would load us all up on the westbound Sunset Limited to travel from Houston to San Antonio back in the 80s.

Back then, eating M&Ms and drinking cokes in the lounge car was continental to us kids. Then our return trip on Sunday morning, required traveling to the dining car as we ate breakfast while watching the farmland whiz by. The white tablecloth service for breakfast added to the experience.

On May 1, 1971, Amtrak operated its first scheduled train of what remained of a declining mode of transportation. No one knew if the National Railroad Passenger Corporation would survive in a world where automobiles and aircraft were preferred.

All Aboard for TAY to TPL

As a former flight crew member, I was used to minute-by-minute precision and the constant quest for an on-time departure. Every flight felt like managed chaos as the crew tried to race the clock seating passengers and storing luggage.

Train travel is a little looser than air travel. Train passengers aren’t require to arrive hours before their departure for check-in and security lines. As long as you confirm the arrival of your train with Amtrak’s real-time online application, no need to arrive at the station more than 15 minutes before departure.

Expecting to be the lone passengers, my travel companion and I were surprised by a group at my station for the mid-week northbound Texas Eagle. With a generous baggage allowance and no security check points to manage, leisure travelers flock to train travel.

I saw a montage of fellow train passengers, some day trippers and some visiting grandmothers seeing family. With a blast of the horn, our train slowed as it entered our station, Taylor east of Austin.

Long gone is the elegant train station of yesteryear with architectural flourishes and understated grandeur. A concrete pad complete with a picnic table and a shade awning replaced it. No station master to greet you, instead an Amtrak sign sits in the parking lot and Union Pacific workers give departing passengers the side-eye.

As the train slowed, a conductor popped his headed out the open door window, signaling passengers where we were to board the train. Cueing up, some had their tickets with its QR code ready on their phones, others printed out a paper ticket. Though the conductor just needed a full name to check against his manifest and no identification was required to board.

With the help of a yellow step stool, passengers, myself included, entered the train car’s vestibule. This area housed lavatories, a self-serve luggage area and a doorway to the downstairs seating area, reserved for those with mobility issues holding a special ticket. Most passengers navigate a small staircase to the upper level of the coach car.

The Texas Eagle

The Texas Eagle locomotive in Taylor, Texas. Credit: Catherine Parker

As travel slowdowns from 2020 ooze into the first part of 2021, the first car we entered was at capacity. Through the air lock into another car and my friend spotted the last pair of empty seats.

Placing our hand-written ticket stating our departure station above our chosen seats, we noticed on the ample legroom that outclassed first on most airlines. Seated in my preferred window seat, I found the standard 110-volt electrical outlet and pulled out my phone charger for a boost.

As the train chugged north, we soon felt the sway of train travel. The motion can actually lull some passengers into a nap with its rhythm. Though for my short trip, I stared out of my large picture window and saw the farmland undulate as the grain moved to-and-fro.

Taking a moment to absorb my surroundings, my fellow passengers were relaxed. Without the frantic shuffling of airline travel or the hassle of interstate traffic, passengers chatted with a relaxed air.

I pulled out a magazine from my pack then pushed the recline button on my seat. I forgot about my phone and its constant hum of notifications. In addition to a standard tray table, coach train seats offer a foot rest with enough room to use it. Even with the seat reclined, I never felt like I was intruding on the personal space of the passenger behind me. Can’t say that on a aircraft.

Before long, a nag drew me the cafe car. With pared down service still in effect, I ordered a cup of tea and my friend opted for coffee with creamers; though snack food was available as well. Unlike train service in other countries, a beverage and snack cart doesn’t come through the cars on Amtrak’s service.

The Texas Eagle is a 1,306-mile train route from Chicago’s Union Station to San Antonio with stops in the Metroplex along with a handful of Texas towns. With service returning to seven days a week before the summer season, trains offer several coach class cars. Additionally, find a dining car, the sightseer lounge car (spacing restrictions still in effect) and a checked baggage area.

 

The Texas Eagle offers a sleeper car for guests that prefer more privacy. Passengers get a choice of a roomette or private bedroom, both offering a shared restroom with shower onboard. Each reservation includes complimentary lounge access at the larger stations, priority boarding, a dedicated car attendant, complimentary meals along with linens and towels for onboard use.

 

Tickets for the sleeping accommodations often sell out so advance reservations are recommended.

 

Destination Temple Texas

Part of a larger complex, the Santa Fe train depot in Temple offers a railroad museum. Credit: Catherine Parker

As my chosen departure point, I exited my train and stepped into a revitalized downtown area dedicated to trains. Temple actually owes its start to the late 1800s train boom.

With the first spike driven in the 1850s, tracks spoked out of Houston and connected with the port in Galveston. Then Houston connected with Louisiana along with Dallas and the Red River in the 1870s.

The tracks didn’t arrive in Central Texas until the 1890s as the railroad pushed west. At that time, a farmer sold 181 acres to the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad (absorbed by Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway) since the train needed services on its new line.

From the train tracks, a town grew, getting its name from the railroad chief engineer. First the train, its tracks and its services, soon after Temple grew with the opening of a railroad hospital.

Temple Railroad and Heritage Museum

See antique trains along with trains in active service at Temple. Credit: Catherine Parker

After disembarking the train, the first building passengers see is the 1911 Santa Fe Depot. Before walking around to the front entrance, take a look at the collection of vintage railroad cars and engines along the active track. Several offer platforms for a closer look inside.

Restored in 2000, the 1911 Santa Fe Depot is now an event space. Though when it opened it was part of Fred Harvey’s operation as a Harvey House. Known across the western U.S. for a quick and quality meal, the hospitality company build and maintained dining services for train passengers and some dining cars.

Fred Harvey started his namesake company in 1876 serving food along the route of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. At the height of operations, Harvey owned 84 Harvey Houses and employed unmarried women to work them—the Harvey Girls.

Head upstairs and walk through the exhibits on early train history as well as an overview of Temple history. The exhibits include lots of artifacts from the early years of train travel.

Located at 315 W. Ave. B Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Adult admission is $4.

 

Moody Depot Museum

Relocated from nearby Moody, Texas, the renovated depot houses a collection of model railroads. With a O-scale, HO-scale and N-scale, the trains chug along their tracks to the delight of all ages. The HO set-up even features Temple landmarks in miniature.

Located at 317 West Avenue B. Open the first and third Saturdays of the month from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Whistlestop Playground

Next to the Moody Depot Museum, kids can scramble across one of two play areas steps from the Santa Fe Plaza.

Next to the Moody Depot Museum, kids can scramble across one of two play areas steps from the Santa Fe Plaza.

Santa Fe Plaza

Outside the 1911 Santa Fe Depot, the Santa Fe Plaza connects the revitalized area. Enjoy an outdoor space with amble room to meander. Find fountains and head into the Temple Chamber of Commerce for more information.

Located in front of the Temple Railroad and Heritage Museum. Free and open daily from dawn to dusk.

The Yard—Food Truck Plaza

With a collection of food trucks, sample Central Texas stables like BBQ or German food. Find tables in the area.

Located at 212 S. Main St.

Downtown Temple

Just beyond the Santa Fe Plaza area, downtown Temple offers walkable streets, murals and dining.

Top Tips for Train Travel

  • Train travel is slower-paced and though get real time information on each train route via its smart phone app.
  • The amble personal space at each seat is a by-product of another era so the train cars are older.
  • Bring comfort items onboard for your trip, like a travel pillow, small blanket, water bottle and preferred snacks. For light sleepers, ear plugs are recommended.
  • Amtrak doesn’t own it track so holds for freight traffic can happen at any time. Though the conductor will announce any delays in route.
  • Trains are non-smoking though larger stations offer smoke breaks.

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