Austin residents were steaming mad after the owners of the Zilker Zephyr published a scathing Facebook post and even recorded a business voicemail message declaring the tiny train was "permanently closed" on the morning of January 29. After a flurry of stories fanned by journalism outlets and social media, the City of Austin issued a release saying that the tiny train wasn't derailed permanently, it's just stuck in the station for a little while longer.
"The Department takes the operation of this beloved amenity seriously and is working to secure a contract for future operation," the Parks Department said in its mid-afternoon press release.
Though the city's statement was released only four hours after Zilker Zephyr management posted its Facebook announcement, it was hard to hear over Austin's collective roar of outrage.
Taking to Twitter, even Mayor Steve Adler weighed, in assuring residents that the train would remain in operation.
The Zilker Zephyr will chug on. 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.— Mayor Adler (@MayorAdler) January 29, 2020
That didn't do much to mollify Austinites, some of whom took issue with the current ownership not receiving the contract in the first place. In at attempt to decipher the he said/she said/they said story behind the Zilker Zephyr, here's what we know.
Blame the rain
In May 2019, heavy rainfall caused "severe erosion" to an embankment that holds part of the Zilker Zephyr track. The portion was deemed unsafe, and the ownership began the process of repairing that part of the track. With less than a year left on the contract, the owners asked for a five-year extension. The city countered with a contract that included a three-year extension and two one-year extension options.
The owners rejected the deal, explaining that "it would not have been a good business decision for us." And so, the current Zilker Zephyr, the name the train has operated under for the past 22 years, will end. But the train, which has been around for nearly 60 years under multiple owners, will likely chug along.
A new conductor
The city will issue a request for proposals, a formal bidding process to bring in a new owner/operator. As the City of Austin points out, opening the re-bidding process to bring in someone a new could potentially enhance and update the existing operation.
"As with other longterm concessions, the re-bidding of the service helps to ensure the public receives the best services possible while providing all vendors an opportunity to manage operations," Parks and Recreation officials tell CultureMap. "This could include improvements to the facility and/or additional services within a new contract."
Getting back on track
The RFP request will begin sometime this spring, and the city says the selection process should take about six months. Once the new vendor is identified, it's unclear how long it will take to get the train operational.
"An assessment of the timeframe for repairs will have to be conducted once a new vendor identified," the city said, adding that the current vendor had an estimated timeline of 12 months to complete the repairs.
So, rest assured fans, the Zilker tiny train will chug on ... eventually.