Arkansas' historic Reader Railroad could soon be steaming into North Texas if the pieces fall into place for one town, the Texarkana Gazette reported.
The small city of Bonham has pushed for several years to establish a steam-powered, short-line railroad to draw tourists from the Dallas area, about 70 miles away.
For the last three years its primary suitor has been the Reader Railroad.
"At the point that the railroad is restored for use as a passenger train, we have an interest in helping them develop facilities for passengers, such as stations and that sort of thing," said Richard Grigsby, who owns Reader Railroad. "And, of course, we have several different trains."
Bonham's need for economic development and its unused stretch of railroad track, make the city a great fit for Reader Railroad. The company has several antique steam engines, no riders and is based in a community of 82 about 20 miles east of Prescott, Arkansas.
"The combination of the railroad's history and the population in northern Texas (Bonham sits within 90 minutes of 6 million people) could yield 100,000 riders by the second year," said director at Bonham Economic Development Corporation, Glenn Taylor.
Add to that a minor twist: Fannin rail district board member Tom Long is the son of the man who operated the Reader Railroad for two decades before selling it to Grigsby 31 years ago.
The plan hinges on a much-delayed agreement between Union Pacific, the Texas Department of Transportation and the rail district over the use of a 1.28-mile stretch of track just outside Bonham city limits. The stretch would give the city about 8 miles of track stretching to the east on which to operate a tourist train.
Taylor said the agreement should be wrapped up within a couple of months, after which Bonham would pursue a formal agreement with Reader.
"If they was to do that, they'd probably move all of it here," he said.
Reader Railroad is an Arkansas institution. Built in 1889 as the Sayre Narrow Gauge, it carried timber from the area around Reader, which sits on the Ouachita-Nevada county line, and Gurdon.
It was renamed for the town of Reader in 1925 and carried timber and freight until the mid-1950s, when it was sold and began carrying passengers as well as freight, according to the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
In 1980, after a period of decline, the line was sold to Grigsby, who turned it into a tourist attraction. It carried about 100,000 people before being shut down in 1991 because of federal safety regulations.
Since then, Grigsby's business has shifted to the movies. Reader's century-old steam engines have appeared in several films, including "There Will Be Blood," "3:10 to Yuma" and the 2010 remake of "True Grit."
Grigsby told the Gazette in an August interview that he plans to rehabilitate the track at Reader and reopen it for passenger service. Those plans haven't changed, he said last week. But between rehabilitating Reader's locomotives and hauling them to movie shoots, it could take several years.
The Bonham tourist train is one of many business opportunities Grigsby is exploring for the railroad in the meantime, he said.
"Our vision of it would be that there's a standalone company that would make arrangements to lease various equipment from Reader Railroad," he said. "But Reader Railroad is always going to be in Reader, Ark."
How many trains stay in Reader will depend on the success of the tourist operation in Bonham. Grigsby has five engines, three of which are now in Reader.
"I wouldn't say there's always going to be a train at Reader, or that, from time to time, we wouldn't take the train at Reader to a motion picture location and then move it back," Grigsby said. "It just depends on what sort of business opportunities we face."
Plans for Reader Railroad's future in Bonham have been scaled back since 2008, when there was talk of building a Western town east of Bonham with the help of $12 million from investors, Taylor said.
Now, Bonham is simply looking for funds to repair its rails to make them passenger-worthy. The task has been hindered by a couple of grant applications that have been turned down, Taylor said.
Grigsby remains optimistic but Taylor isn't.
"A tourist train would be great for Bonham and Fannin County, but I don't think it will ever happen," he said.
For now, at least, the bulk of the Reader Railroad will remain in Reader, Arkansas.
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