This year has been off the rails, and this is especially true for Austin's beloved miniature choo choo the Zilker Zephyr.
Due to storm-related erosion beneath its tracks, the Zilker Zephyr—an emerald green, 72-passenger, propane-powered mini train that ran for 22 years—was forced to shut down in May of 2019.
The Zephyr, the second train in the park's history, was preceded by the 60-passenger gas-powered Zilker Eagle which ran from 1961-1996.
Lamenting the temporary closure of the train, the City of Austin issued a statement on Jan. 29. Due to severe erosion to an embankment supporting part of the train's tracks, the tracks were deemed unsafe and would require an evaluation followed by repairs in order to keep on chugging.
The damage could not have come at a more inconvenient time as the vendor that owned and operated the train, Texas Special Co., had less than a year left in their contract.
"Per the contract, the vendor is required to make all repairs; therefore, recouping erosion repairs would have required a period longer than the remaining contract period," the city stated.
The Austin Parks & Recreation Department said they worked in good faith with the vendor on an agreement to continue operations while preserving future bidding opportunities. Ultimately unable to come to a contract agreement with the vendor, the department thanked Texas Special for their service and moved on with their search for a new vendor.
At this time, the department is still in the early stages of operations planning, so no new vendor has been decided on.
Via a Facebook post, Zephyr management explained that they were offered a three year contract and that, due to the projected expenses of the repairs, only a five year contract would make economic sense.
The vendor further claimed they were misled by the city about their contractual obligations relating to the track's repair and their future rights regarding the operation of the train. Texas Special insisted that the entire ordeal ended up costing them over $40,000 and countless hours. Therefore, they announced they were taking away their train.
In February, Texas Special was sued by the city for literally trying to pull up stakes (in the form of bolts) from the Zilker tracks.
The path of Austin's Zilker train youtu.be
However badly the contract negotiations between the city and the Zilker Zephyr went, the Facebook comments relating to the loss of the train revealed that the true victims of the failed negotiations were the children of Austin who would no longer get to enjoy rides through the park.
Natalia Quiroz, a mother of two, recalls the joy the Zephyr brought to her daughter Mazzy before its closing.
"She was the one who loved it and always wanted to go again," Quiroz says.
Local musician Woode Wood, who had been performing for Zephyr passengers for 12 years, told Austonia he knows the kids are devastated about the train being gone from Zilker. He would put his all into entertaining the excited kids that rode by his usual spot, he says.
Wood is confident that the kids just want the train back and will be thrilled with any little locomotive they get.
"Kids will adapt and love the heck out of whatever they put up there as long as it works," he says. "As long as it moves and it goes around on a track, they're going to love it. Because they love being on a train and they don't care how it's powered, you know."
Ladye Anne Wofford, the Chief Mission Officer at Austin Parks Foundation, agrees with Wood that the kids are the true priority of the project, and says her whole foundation is enthused about the chance to bring this major source of Austin family fun back to the community.
"Countless Austinites grew up riding the train and taking their kids to ride the train, and I think keeping the experience alive is a great way to honor a place that made many of us fall in love with Austin in the first place… Zilker Park," Wofford says.
When the Austin City Council asked the non-profit APF in February to step in and steer the bad train situation to a better station, Wofford saw her organization "as a natural fit to bring the train back and improve it and use it as a way to help generate funds for Zilker park."
The new train will meld the mid-century nostalgia of a 1940s passenger train with the up-to-date amenities of an electric engine, while focusing on creating an amusement ride experience that is accommodating to every passenger, regardless of age or ability.
"There are just a lot of ways that we feel that we can improve the business model and the overall experience," Wofford says.
And fans of the Zilker train appear to be all on board.
"We have had a lot of interest and great feedback from people from all across the city—people definitely seem excited to get the train back up and running," she says. "Every time we've been at the site for planning meetings, we're always stopped and asked about the progress of the project and when the train is coming back."
The APF recently held an online contest to name the future train. According to Wofford, 750 Austinites submitted ideas for names. Seven finalists were announced on Sept. 30. Online voting for the winning name will go on until Nov 6.
"I think the Zephyr was a great name but it belongs to the former train," Wofford says. "We thought it was a great opportunity for young people to play a part in what will go down in history, so I am really excited to see what name our community chooses."
Wofford views the community's input, regarding the name and even the color scheme of the future train, as integral to staying true to the charms of the ever popular Zilker Park experience.
"Austin is an active and creative city that has seen so much exciting growth and change over the years," she says. "To many, this makes it even more important that we hold on to our favorite traditions and experiences like the Zilker train."
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An Austin-based program manager for Apple Maps and one of two leaders for the #AppleToo activist movement said she has been fired after a suspension.
According to the New York Times, Janneke Parrish said she was put on suspension for several days while the company investigated her activities before she was fired by a human resources employee via phone call on Thursday.
Parrish was under investigation for allegedly leaking a recording of an Apple staff meeting to the media, which she said she didn't do.
The report said the company told Parrish, who is 30, that she was being fired for having deleted files off her company-issued phone and computer before handing them in for examination. Parrish said the files she deleted contained her personal and financial information.
Among the files she deleted were the Robinhood app, which she said was to keep Apple from seeing "how much money I lost investing in GameStop," the Pokemon Go app and screenshots of programming bugs she was fixing.
Parrish said she believes Apple was retaliating against her efforts in organizing #AppleToo, a group of employees working to expose the company's "culture of secrecy" that has been "faced disproportionately by our Black, Indigenous, and other colleagues from minoritized racial, gender and historically marginalized groups of people."
Parrish had been publishing weekly accounts of workplace problems that had been shared anonymously with her from other employees, though she did not verify employment on all of them. The accounts she received were in the hundreds, so Parrish said she was hopeful her termination would lead to some justice within the company.
Employees at tech giants have been more outspoken than usual in recent months—with former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen speaking out against her former employer—and Parrish said the company's desire to keep under wraps has eroded trust by discouraging employees to come forward with issues like harassment or wage disparity.
Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock commented on the matter: "We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace. We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters."
Additionally, the email detailing her termination, which was obtained by the New York Times, said Apple had determined that Parrish "engaged in conduct in violation of Apple policies including, but not limited to, interfering with an investigation by deleting files on your company provided equipment after being specifically instructed not to do so."
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Republic Square Park has turned into a Ford-themed fiesta for its Built to Connect pop-up experience, complete with test drives, off-roading and an inside look at the Tesla-rivaling electric vehicles that the motor vehicle company is planning to integrate over the next decade.
The outdoor driving event is free, open to the public and will stay in the park from now until Oct. 24, offering rides on Bronco Mountain, a 0-40 mph zip in the 2022 all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning and a chance to win an original Ford Bronco.
The event kicked off with a panel of speakers, including Austin Director of Transportation Rob Spillar, Ford General Manager Darren Palmer and engineering specialists discussing Ford's goals to make it so that 50% of the vehicles on the road are electric by 2030.
As an eco-conscious city, Spillar said that around 4,000 vehicles, or 22% of the Texas electric vehicle market, as well as over 15,000 plugins lie in Austin, meaning driving electric just got accessible.
"Austin, as you know, is a fast-growing modern city that is committed to protecting the long term health and viability of our communities and strategies that reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the drone quality of life here in Central Texas for all of our residents," Spillar said.
And Ford's electric vehicles are putting up some steep competition for newly-Austin-based company Tesla. The new electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lighting offer amenities that used to be exclusive to Musk's brand, such as the BlueCruise self-driving network. The cars also boast a 300-mile range on a single charge, assisted reverse technology and access to the biggest charging network outside of the home.
Plus, Ford's got affordability on its side. The F-150 Lightning starts at $39,974 and the Mustang Mach-E starts at $42,895, while the cheapest Tesla model, the Model 3, starts at $41,990 and averages 262 miles on a single charge.
Speaking of price, the numbers on the electric vehicles may look like a little more than you'd like to pay for your transport, but Palmer promises it will pay off. In addition to a $7,500 tax credit you can earn for your sustainability, you'll never have to buy a pricey tank of gas again.
"Personally, I have not found one customer ever, who would go back to gas so that says something," Palmer said. "I realized, at $51,000, that car outruns every childhood hero car I ever had."
Texas buyers: take note. The Ford Lightning can power your house for three to 10 days, just in case the statewide power grid fails. You can take it glamping with you, so you don't have to leave the comfort of modern life behind, and in a pinch, Palmer said he's even seen a wedding party powered by the truck.
Ford is investing $30 billion into the U.S. market to meet demand by 2025 and the new electric truck already has over 150,000 reservations.
"I think they're going to take off much faster than you expect—they're going to be extremely, extremely popular next year," Palmer said. "With the incentives that are available today, this is starting to become more mainstream and viable for more and more families. We couldn't have done that before, we didn't have the technology, or the technology at that price."
The event is ongoing through next weekend from 12-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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