Passengers are riding the rails on South Georgia’s new excursion train. The Azalea Sprinter made its inaugural run on March 13, 2021, and continues to move full steam ahead.
For Jamie Cater and Chris Parrott, owners of CaterParrott Railnet (CPR), operating a passenger train has been part of the company’s “big picture” for many years.
“I grew up watching the train go past my house,” Cater says. “It was exciting to see all the passengers. We wanted to bring that back to South Georgia.”
For train enthusiasts Cater and Parrott, their partnership started in 1999 when they refurbished Tifton’s historic train depot and created the Tifton Terminal Railway Museum. In 2005, they established CPR as a short line regional rail carrier providing freight service, railcar storage, and light railcar repair.
As they continued to expand CPR’s service area, which now includes five rail lines in 11 Georgia counties, the opportunity to add passenger service became a reality with the launch of the Azalea Sprinter.
Leaving from Nashville, Georgia, passengers climb aboard the Azalea Sprinter for short trips on the historic Georgia and Florida Railroad to either Willacoochee, Moody Air Force Base, or Valdosta.
Running on select Fridays and Saturdays, the train’s primary route is a relaxing 34-mile journey through fields and woodland before crossing the Alapaha River on its way to the rural community of Willacoochee.
“We’ve been blown away by the success, especially with the dinner trains. We knew they would become popular but were surprised that they sold out four and five weeks in advance.” –Chris Parrott
Seating options include coach, club car, and the caboose is available for small groups.
At the start of the summer, the “Dinner on the Rail” became a popular excursion. The dinner train provides passengers with a unique opportunity to enjoy the train experience and a delicious meal and live music. As the train stops on the trestle overlooking the Alapaha River, passengers are served salad, three entrees (roasted chicken, filet mignon, and lobster tail), vegetables, rolls, and a choice of dessert.
“We’ve been blown away by the success, especially with the dinner trains,” Parrott says. “We knew they would become popular but were surprised that they sold out four and five weeks in advance.”
This year’s fall schedule will include the Willacoochee fall foliage rides and dinner trains, holiday-themed Santa train rides, and Willacoochee to Valdosta trips on Nov. 6 and Dec. 4, and include a barbecue boxed lunch.
“All the trips offer something for everyone,” Parrott says. “It’s a great experience, and we are creating memories for families.”
Frequent riders Keith and Tara Goble from Valdosta use the train rides to celebrate family events.
“We did the dinner ride on July 3,” says Tara Goble. “I thought that would be a great thing to do for my husband and sister’s birthday, and we had a great time. The entertainment was very enjoyable, and the food was awesome. We have told everyone how relaxing and enjoyable the dinner ride was.”
When it came time to celebrate her father’s 90th birthday, Goble says the train was a perfect choice. “This was my dad’s second ride. He went on the Pizza Express with us and had such a great time that we decided this was what we wanted to do on his birthday.”
“I grew up watching the train go past my house. It was exciting to see all the passengers. We wanted to bring that back to South Georgia.” – Jamie Cater
An Economic Engine
Parrott says starting the passenger train was a way to give back to the communities they serve. “The response has been great, and there is a lot of excitement. People are talking about the opportunities to bring tourists to the area and grow jobs.”
Serving as the boarding location, the Nashville Farmer’s Market is reaping the economic benefits of the Azalea Sprinter.
“People come in to shop before and after they get off the train,” says Winshelle “Winnie” Preston, manager of the Nashville Farmer’s Market. “We have always been busy on Fridays and Saturdays, but on train days, the number of customers doubles even triples.”
The Nashville Farmer’s Market offers an expanded selection of farm-fresh fruits, vegetables, homemade pies and cakes, local jams and jellies, homemade crafts, and a selection of books by local authors.
“The Azalea Sprinter has definitely created a buzz and has brought more awareness and traffic to downtown Nashville,” says Nancy Pesce, director of Nashville Main Street. “The farmer’s market is within walking distance to downtown, and we believe in cooler weather we will see a lot more foot traffic coming into the shops and downtown restaurants.”
The Next Stop
While looking to add more train stops, Parrott says, “Our goal is to connect the line so we can bring the train to Valdosta’s downtown. Then, people could get off the train for a few hours and shop and eat.”
CPR runs freight trains to Valdosta on the Norfolk Southern lines; however, those lines don’t allow passenger trains.
“Now, when we run a passenger train to Valdosta, it stops at Park Avenue,” Parrott says. “The next step is to install 1.7 miles of track to connect to downtown Valdosta.”
Bringing the Azalea Sprinter to Valdosta is expected to create three to five million in annual economic impact. It’s a project that has Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson excited about creating more revitalization and tourism opportunities.
The estimated $3.5 million project will include a train depot near Savannah Avenue. “It is still in the planning stage, but there are public and private partnership options,” Matheson says. “Having a passenger train stopping in downtown will be a regional tourism draw.”
Moving the project forward, Matheson says there is a lot of interest from downtown businesses. “It gives another thing for tourism. Instead of people coming for just one day at Wild Adventures, they can stay overnight and come downtown do some shopping and eating and then take a train ride.”
Cater says CPR’s future plans include stops in other South Georgia communities. “We are also looking at Douglas; though we haven’t started the conversation, but it’s a possibility.”
The company’s long-range goal of moving people is to reestablish a connection with Amtrak in Valdosta or possibly Douglas and connect CPR served communities to the National Passenger Rail Network, linking South Georgia to more than 500 rail served destinations across America.