The mission of the Austin Steam Train Association is to preserve, interpret and re-create the first-hand experience of historic steam railroading for the enjoyment and edification of today's families and the generations to come.
A Brief History of ASTA
Central Texas' popular excursion railroad grew from the happy confluence of an historic steam locomotive and an historic rail line, after the two both became the property of the citizens of Austin.
The locomotive, Southern Pacific No. 786, had been donated to the city in 1956 as the SP was retiring its steam fleet in favor of diesel power, and she was put on static display in downtown Austin's Brush Square. Twenty years later, the SP ended its operations in the Austin area and sold the city 167 miles of its track from Giddings through Austin and into the Hill Country to Burnet, Llano and Marble Falls.
A number of local rail aficionados, led by businessman and private-railcar enthusiast Arthur U. Boone, saw the possibilities of bringing together the city's steam engine and the city's new railroad into an authentic re-creation of historic passenger railroading in Central Texas, and they incorporated in 1989 as the non-profit Austin Steam Train Association.
The 786, a Mikado-type engine built in 1916, was restored to operating condition in a privately financed two-year effort, period passenger cars were acquired, and ASTA's first Hill Country Flyer made its run on July 25, 1992, the first passenger train between Cedar Park and Burnet in 55 years.
A year later, ASTA moved into its 16-acre rail yard in Cedar Park, donated by Texas Commerce Bank and developed with a grant from the State of Texas. In recent years, part of the yard was subdivided for a retail development, which allowed the association to build convenient new boarding facilities in the yard for passengers, and to move its administrative headquarters to Cedar Park as well.
The association's weekend passenger operations, proudly operating as the Austin & Texas Central Railroad, have continued uninterrupted since that first Flyer, and have constantly been enhanced with new passenger cars, improvements to existing equipment, online ticketing and the addition of other excursion offerings such as the Cedar-Park-to-Bertram Bertram Flyer and special trains such as children's specials, murder-mystery excursions and the holiday-season North Pole Flyers.
Throughout ASTA's history, the operating crews of all its trains have always been volunteers, each fully trained and qualified for his or her responsibilities, who have not only run the trains but have provided the heart, brains and muscle for countless other projects such as equipment maintenance and restoration, tracklaying and restoration of ASTA's historic 1912 country depot in Bertram, opened in 1997.
After seven years and 60,000 miles of service, the 786 was sidelined in 1999 for a repair which turned into a complete overhaul of the locomotive, which is nearing completion but still under way. Passenger operations, of course, went on uninterrupted with diesel-electric locomotives, first borrowed from ASTA's freight-hauling partners on the line and then with the acquisition of the A&TC's own diesel, the 1960 Alco-built No. 442, which has reliably powered almost all of ASTA's trains ever since.
The rail line over which ASTA operates passed from city ownership to the area's new transit authority, Capital Metro, shortly after the city acquired it, and in the spring of 2010 the agency began regular commuter service over a 32-mile Leander-to-Austin segment. Sharing of the line between the commuter trains, freight trains and the excursion trains, especially where ASTA overlaps between Cedar Park and Leander, meant that ASTA volunteers had to train and qualify for much more sophisticated operating systems and rules, but they have stepped up to the challenge.
Ridership on ASTA's railroad has grown steadily over the last few years, and now totals more than 400,000 passengers carried safely and reliably since the first train in 1992. The association's finances have stabilized as well, and with operating costs covered by ticket and merchandise sales, memberships and contributions, ASTA can devote other money it raises through grants and fundraising to bolstering its financial reserves and to building its future with capital projects such as completion of the 786 and building new maintenance and museum facilities in its Cedar Park home.
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