Citing financial pressures, the owner of the Minnesota Zephyr announced on Thursday that the popular dinner train will end its 23-year run at year's end.
As of Jan. 1, the familiar blue, red and silver train will become a stationary restaurant, idling at the newly reopened Stillwater Grill, said David Paradeau. He owns both the Zephyr and the Stillwater Grill.
The train has been a major attraction, drawing tens of thousands of tourists annually from all over the country to Stillwater. It travels from 4 to 7 miles per hour, back and forth along a 6-mile route, while riders dine and take in the view and entertainment.
"It's devastating," Paradeau said of his decision to stop riding the rails. "We tried so hard."
In the past couple of years the fate of the Zephyr has been up in the air.
Paradeau, who had hoped to retire a couple years ago, had been talking with state and county officials about selling the 6-mile rail corridor to the state, and converting it into a public bike trail that would connect Stillwater to the state's Gateway Trail System.
But the deal did not materialize, and last fall, he said he would keep the train going through the end of 2008.
Then came winter, and Paradeau shut down the Zephyr for the season to save money.
The dinner train began running again in May, and, at the time, Paradeau said he would continue running the train until the state acquired his land.
On Thursday, he said he could no longer afford to operate a moving dinner train.
"The highly publicized, yet failed attempt, to buy the corridor by state agencies caused a misperception by much of the public that the Minnesota Zephyr was permanently closed in 2007," he said in a statement.
That and the loss of business for the first five months of 2008, plus the current economic crisis that makes it difficult to get a bank loan, he said, led to the abrupt decision to shut down the Zephyr.
He estimated that he has lost $1.6 million in the past two years.
After the last ride, Paradeau plans to remove the railroad tracks and railroad ties and sell them, along with the 6-mile railroad corridor. "I'm going to put it up for sale. There might be people with land along that 6-mile route who are interested in acquiring that portion of land that adjoins theirs," he said. He added that he is also considering selling the 100-foot railroad bridge that spans Hwy. 95 and serves as a kind of gateway to Stillwater on the city's north end.
The Stillwater Grill opened in June. Paradeau said he plans to still offer the five-course, white linen dinner that he's always served on the dinner train but it would cost half the price because the train isn't moving.
He's not sure what to do with the cabaret singers, who perform '40s hits on the Zephyr rides. He said he would like to keep the act, but that depends on whether people are willing to pay for it.
The last train ride will be Dec. 31. Paradeau said he's sure this time.
"It's been a real ride with a million people," he said. "Now it's the final, final."
Allie Shah • 651-298-1550.