We boarded the Hill Country Flyer yesterday, at its home station in Cedar Park (north of Austin). It's only a 33 mile trip, each direction, but took approximately 90 minutes for the train to carry us past ranches, neighborhoods, creeks and hills to reach our destination - Burnet, Texas, which was celebrating its Bluebonnet Festival. (For non-Texans, the town of Burnet is pronounced BURN'-et, not Bur-NETT'.)
|This was our car - The City of Chicago|
After the hectic week we had last week, we were happy to sit in our comfortable car, The City of Chicago, watch the world go by at a leisurely pace and visit with our fellow-travelers. Our car was originally a sleeper car. Some of the sleeping berths are still intact, but the area where our seats were has been converted to a lounge.
|Our conductor, David, punching our ticket|
Once we arrived in Burnet, we found a bus which took us to a buffet style barbecue restaurant. After a pretty nice lunch, the bus returned us to the station, located right downtown. The Bluebonnet Festival was in full swing. The whole town was taken over by rides, booths and music. Dan and I found some wonderful street-side seats, set up under a shade tree, where we enjoyed an hour or so of people-watching.
Shortly after 2:00 our train headed back to Cedar Park. We were probably about three-fourths of the way back when the train came to a stop for, maybe, half an hour. From the window I was able to see back toward the caboose, where a number of men were examining the wheels and looking under the train. Eventually they re-boarded the train and we continued our homeward journey. One of the train staff told us that the brakes had over-heated and that there had been smoke, so they had to make sure that everything was safe. None of us were too surprised to hear that it had been a brake issue, since back in Burnet we had experienced some very jarring stops. The hostess who was in our car told us, at that time, that the brakeman was a novice. I think those sudden stops might have had something to do with the over-heated brakes. But . . . what do I know?
|The train sits idle while several fellows check out the smoking brakes|
So here's my personal review of the Hill Country Flyer experience.
What I liked:
- It was restful (with the exception of those jarring stops) and pleasant.
- The staff - all of them volunteers, even the engineer and brakeman - were friendly and helpful.
- The other passengers were fun to meet and talk with.
- The history of the train and the track were interesting, and it was a fun trip back in time.
- The fare was very reasonable.
What was a little disappointing:
- We understood (misunderstood, I guess) that our train would be powered by the Southern Pacific No. 786, a 97-year-old steam engine. But it is undergoing a rebuild, so we were pulled, instead, by a vintage diesel engine.
- The scenery wasn't what I expected. I had visions of climbing through the wilds of the hill country and seeing scenic vistas and fields of wildflowers. Instead, the tracks ran right alongside the road, and much of what we saw were small towns and back yards. We did pass over a number of creeks and beside ranches with livestock.
- We saw wildflowers, but not in abundance. I'm pretty sure we have more bluebonnet meadows here, in Temple, than we saw in Burnet, which is known as "the bluebonnet capital." But maybe we just didn't know where to go to see them.
|This was a typical patch of bluebonnets|
How it compares:
- In 2008 we took a similar day-excursion on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which began in Chama, NM, and went up into Colorado. You can read about it here. That trip wins, hands down, when it comes to breath-taking scenery and the complementary meal that was provided. It was a narrow-gauge railroad, as opposed to the full sized-railroad we were on yesterday. And it was powered by a steam engine. The town of Chama, itself, was also a quaint little tourist-friendly town. But, to be fair, the fare was almost double what we paid for yesterday's trip.
Would I ride it again?
- Yes, but probably not for the Bluebonnet Festival. The Austin Steam Train Association offers events all year long, including Murder Mystery nights, Mother's/Father's Day trips, a Halloween Murder Mystery trip and a North Pole Flyer (like a Polar Express trip, for children). It could be fun to try out some of these events.