Choo! Choo!

By Kevin Tankersley

Hop aboard the Hill Country Flyer

The trip from Cedar Park, just outside Round Rock, to Burnet can be pretty quick and straightforward. Take Highway 183 north for a few miles and then veer off to the left onto Highway 29. It takes about 40 minutes.

Or you could make the trip a little more interesting and board the Hill Country Flyer, a train that operates between the two towns every weekend. It pulls out of the Cedar Park station a few minutes after 10 a.m. and gets to Burnet about noon. After a two-hour layover it leaves about 2:15 and gets back to its starting point at 4 p.m.

There were 288 of us aboard the Flyer on a recent Saturday morning. The trip from Waco to Cedar Park took about 80 minutes, so we arrived just as the train started boarding at 9:30 a.m. We found our seats on the Buckeye Trail, a long car with two seats on each side of the aisle. The airplane-style seats were upholstered in a bright blue fabric with brown leather headrests. Our kids claimed the window seats, while the grownups were on the aisle. (The seats can be configured so that a party of four can face each other during the trip.)

Both the Buckeye Lake and Buckeye Trail are called excursion coach cars. Adult tickets for this level of travel are $38, and children from 3 to 13 pay $28. There’s an $8 “ticketing operation fee” if you book online.

Other options on the Hill Country Flyer include first class coach, which offers complimentary bottled water and fresh fruit along with more leg room, and first class lounge cars, which offer free water, tea, coffee, fruit and pastries. Travelers in lounge cars sit at tables or in booths. When we first boarded the train, I wished that we had paid a bit more for first class so the kids could have a tabletop on which to play the games they brought. However, on the trip back from Burnet, our somewhat-plush chairs that reclined were surely more comfortable than being forced to sit upright in a booth for two hours.

There’s also an adults-only first class lounge car for those wanting to avoid children, and there were many on our trip. Children under the age of 14 must be accompanied by an adult anywhere they go on the train.

We settled in, and the train left Cedar Park on time. We backed up quite a ways to get out of the station, switched tracks and were on our way. A car attendant made a few announcements and then walked down the aisle punching tickets. (Unfortunately, he did not use his hole puncher to create a design, a la Tom Hanks’ character in ‘The Polar Express.’) But he was a friendly older gentleman who said that in two hours, “We’ll be at the Burnet International Train Station.” And indeed we were. We passed through Bertram, where the Austin Steam Train Association owns another depot, though we didn’t stop there. The Bertram Depot is the destination for shorter routes that run on Sundays from Cedar Park.

The conductor for the day’s trip was 67-year-old Dave Shannon, a retired chemical engineer who has been a volunteer with the train association for about six years. His interest in railroading began when he was a child in Pennsylvania and received a model railroad set as a Christmas gift. He eventually went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and worked for DuPont for 40 years. After retiring in Victoria, he and his wife now live in Leander, where a 15-by-21-foot room in their home is dedicated to his model railroads. They made the move so Shannon could contribute his time to the railroad. He works at least a couple of trips a month. There are four other volunteer conductors who work as well.

Shannon explained that most of the train cars on our trip are from the 1940s and ‘50s, though the car housing the concession stand is a 1920 model. It’s in need of renovations that would cost about $150,000, he said, so the association is trying to sell it.

“It needs air conditioning, new trucks [chassis for a railroad car], new floors,” Shannon said. “The metal walls are not attached to the bottom anymore. They’ve corroded off.”

Train repairs — and the entire association — are funded by donations, he said, and everyone who works aboard the train is a volunteer. During our trip the engineer, the guy actually driving the train, was Brian Smith, who is on the association’s board of directors.

From the windows we saw the first bluebonnets of the year, lots of pasture land and cattle, rusted-out cars in backyards, Tony’s Hill Country Smoked BBQ (which, I later discovered, had earned a lowly one-star review on Yelp) and one tent pitched precariously close to the tracks.

Once in Burnet we had a couple of hours to eat and shop, though the former proved to be easier than the latter.

There are several restaurants within walking distance of the depot in Burnet, and one — the Highlander Restaurant — had a shuttle bus waiting for passengers wishing to dine there. We opted to walk the quarter-mile to Mama’s Home Cooking at 200 South West Street. A couple of workers from the train were also eating there, so we figured that was a good sign. Three of us opted for burgers, one had a crispy chicken salad, and we ate pretty much all of it. Our tab was about $45.

If children in your group need to burn off some energy after two hours on the train, Hamilton Creek Park is just across the street from Mama’s.

We headed back to the downtown square, thinking we might do a little antique browsing before getting back on the train. However, most businesses on the square were closed. Two antique shops along Jackson Street — which was the most direct route from Mama’s to the depot — were open, as was Sassy Ann’s Boutique, a women’s clothing store.

For some free entertainment, right next to the depot, the Burnet Gunfighters put on a show in front of a set that includes the facades of a jail, a saloon and a bank. Guests from the train are encouraged to play the roles of “saloon girls” during the performance, which began at 1:30 p.m. and ended just before boarding time.

If provisions are needed for the two-hour return trip to Cedar Park, the depot in Burnet is adjacent to an H-E-B, by the way. Guests can bring snacks and beverages on board, although nothing alcoholic. Concessions, including sodas, coffee and various snacks, are sold in the Concession Car.

A long, loud train whistle at 2:05 p.m. signaled that it was time to board and begin the journey back from whence we came, and we arrived at Cedar Park a couple of minutes before 4 o’clock.

While our shopping trip in Burnet was unsuccessful, a stop at Half Price Books, a four-minute drive from the Cedar Park Depot, was productive, as are most book-shopping excursions for our family.

The Hill Country Flyer trip takes place on Saturday mornings throughout the year. The Bertram Flyer, a shorter trip with a 15-minute layover at the depot in Bertram, is another travel option on select weekends.

Upcoming special trips include the Bluebonnet Festival Flyer from Cedar Park to Burnet for the 33rd annual Bluebonnet Festival on April 10. (The trip on April 9 is sold out.) Some beer- and wine-tasting trips are on the schedule, as are treks for Mother’s Day and for the Burnet County Fair in June. The annual North Pole Flyer — held on weekends beginning in late November — usually sells out by October.

Schedules, directions and prices can be found on the association’s website at AustinSteamTrain.org.

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