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Riding the Rails

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Riding the Rails

  • Train service is an essential part of daily life in communities like Mineola, McGregor and Marshall
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America has always had a fascination with transport, from the historic foot trails carved through beautiful countrysides to the technological marvels of modern flight. But perhaps few modes of transportation have been as revolutionary — and remained as viable since their inception — as trains. And in Texas in particular, rail remains a vital component in the daily lives of many locals.

Mineola

“Rail is important to our community,” says Mineola city manager and economic development director Mercy Rushing. “A lot of times the larger communities take their rail for granted. Stopping in small communities gives our community an opportunity to stay connected with their friends and families.”

Mineola has a strong retiree community, but getting out to areas like Dallas and Houston to visit proves difficult and often requires navigating traffic congestion and complicated routes. Passenger rail provides a safer, hassle-free opportunity for travelers.

And few communities in Texas can claim the kind of story behind their commuter rail like Mineola, a town of about 4,500 people that sits roughly halfway between Dallas and Shreveport, La. “It took us about 10 years to get Amtrak to stop here,” Rushing says.

Rushing and her colleagues began campaigning for Amtrak to add a stop between Longview and Dallas back in the late 1980s. They formed a committee and threw annual railroad celebrations, sending Amtrak’s headquarters in Chicago merchandise featuring the town every year. And every year, Amtrak said no. But it turns out Mineola had an ace up its sleeve — powerful California legislator Willie Brown Jr., who grew up in Mineola before moving into law and eventually becoming one of the most influential politicians in California history.

During a return to his hometown, Rushing and company lobbied Brown for help attracting a passenger rail stop in Mineola. He gladly obliged — on one condition. “He said that if Amtrak comes to Mineola, he wants to be the first person to get off at the new stop,” says Rushing, a condition she happily agreed to.

And then around that 10th year of the campaign, the new Amtrak supervisor for the Texas Eagle line called Mineola’s committee. “Barbara Musgraves, who’s the grandmother of country singer Kacey Musgraves,” Rushing says, “told them, ‘Just come look at Mineola.’”

At the time, Mineola’s train depot was serving as a museum, a tribute to the community’s past railroad history. But the town was ready and willing to update the building and make it rider-ready. In December 1995, six Amtrak employees came down to Mineola to survey the opportunity for a new stop. “We really rolled out the red carpet,” Rushing says. The entire community got on board in an attempt to convince Amtrak of the viability of a new stop. Mineola even secured letters of support from communities all around the area to prove how important a stop would be. “We have ridership from towns all around,” Rushing adds.

Not long after their trip, Amtrak announced that Mineola would become the first new stop on the Texas Eagle line in more than 15 years. Needless to say, it was quite the celebration. “We had 5,000 people celebrate the opening of that stop,” Rushing says, “in a town of only 4,000 people.”

They even had a major San Francisco newspaper come down and chronicle the opening, thanks in no small part to Willie Brown Jr. (who a few months earlier became mayor of San Francisco). The town chartered about a dozen buses to drive to Longview, where folks boarded the train to Mineola. And when it stopped, Brown was the first person off.

To this day, Mineola’s passenger rail ridership remains remarkably strong, with a per capita ridership greater than towns up to eight times its size on the same route.

McGregor

About 20 miles southwest of Waco, McGregor actually owes its existence to the intersection of two national railways. Formed in 1882, the town is named after Dr. Gregor McGregor, who allowed Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway (now known as BNSF) and St. Louis Southwestern Railway (now known as Union Pacific) to build on his land.

Still a highly trafficked industry route for BNSF and companies like Dell Computer and Ferguson Enterprises, the McGregor station serves as a crucial platform stop for commuters on the Texas Eagle, a train route that spans more than 2,700 miles from Los Angeles to Chicago and covers Texas from El Paso to San Antonio, up to Dallas, and over to Texarkana

In McGregor, residents rely on the twice-daily trains for both personal travel and work commute. The stop serves members from all over the community, including nearby Waco and Crawford, the home of President George W. Bush’s ranch.

Marshall

One of Texas’ most gorgeous train depots, the three-story, 7,500-square-foot station in Marshall serves both as a functioning passenger stop for twice-daily trains and an ode to the area’s rich rail history.

Built in 1912, the Marshall station almost suffered an untimely demise when its owner, Union Pacific, applied to tear down the building in 1988. The city’s chamber of commerce successfully denied the demolition before a new, not-for-profit called Marshall Depot Inc. formed to return Marshall’s train station to its former glory.

MDI successfully gained Texas Historic Landmark status for the depot and raised money from local individuals, businesses and even Union Pacific to initiate the first remodeling in 1991.

After 10 years of fundraising, grant applications and subsequent refurbishings, the Marshall station returned to its historic glory. It now houses the Texas and Pacific Railway Museum along with a comprehensive passenger waiting area, office space and other accommodations.

With strong ridership and annual revenues approaching half a million dollars in a community of just over 20,000 people, the Marshall station stands as a monument to history and community involvement while still functioning as an important mode of transport for the thousands of weekly commuters in the east Texas region.

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