They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch but apparently there are free kiddie train repairs.
In an amazing and unexplainable turn of events in the long-running saga of the dysfunctional Little Train that Couldn’t at Northeast Park, the company that sold the defective train to Guilford County has, out of the blue, agreed to come get the train, truck it back to California, repair it and return it free of charge.
That comes two months after the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to spend an estimated $63,000 to fix the train and tracks. The board later hired a Burlington company to do the repairs. This new development means the county could save nearly all of that money commissioners approved earlier this year in their last ditch effort to save the train. County officials had long ago given up hopes that the original supplier that sold the train to the county would fix it.
Six years ago, Guilford County purchased the C.P. Huntington train from Katiland Trains to serve as a park attraction that would draw kids and their families to Northeast Park, but the train has never run properly and, aside from a short stint a year and a half ago, the ride has never been operational. The county spent nearly $370,000 to purchase the train and tracks – roughly $170,000 for the train, and about $200,000 for the tracks. Now, with attempted repairs, Guilford County has spent about a half million dollars in all on the project.
At a Board of Commissioner’s meeting in early April, the board voted 7 to 1 to spend the $63,000 to save the choo-choo that’s been the source of major headaches for more than five years. Fixing the track was estimated to cost about $16,000, while the engine repairs were projected to cost around $47,000. The county had chosen Diesel Engine and Heavy Equipment Repair of Burlington to repair the train. One county official said this week that, at some point Diesel Engine contacted Katiland – which now operates under the name Western Train Co. – and the California-based company offered to come get the train, repair it at no charge and return it to Guilford County in running condition within 90 days.
That decision by Western Train has many Guilford County officials scratching their heads, since the county has had an ongoing dispute with the company over the train for years, and, two years ago, Guilford County even had trouble getting an operator’s manual from Katiland that was required for the train to pass a state inspection.
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson represents much of northeastern Guilford County, where the kiddie train has sat idle for years. Branson said the latest development sounds suspiciously too good to be true, but he added that, at this point, just about anything is worth a shot when it comes to the train.
“I hope they will do a total rebuild and it will last forever,” Branson said, adding that, given the history of contention between the county and Katiland, it’s a real puzzle why the company is now offering to repair the train.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said that, though he’s still getting up to speed on the situation, if what he’s hearing turns out to be true, it’s good to see the company “stepping up and doing what it should have all along.”
“If that’s the case, then I’m all for it,” Phillips said.
One county official joked that he hopes this isn’t an elaborate attempt by the company to steal the train back from the county. Phillips didn’t go that far in his skepticism, but he did say, regarding county staff’s decision to accept the offer, “I hope we’re vetting this.”
Commissioner Hank Henning said he has one theory why the train maker may now be willing to make the repairs.
“I suggested at a public meeting that maybe we should sue them,” Henning said. “Maybe that had something to do with it.”
Henning also said the ongoing bad publicity from Guilford County’s train debacle may have played a role in the company’s decision.
Henning, like most of the other commissioners, was reluctant earlier this year to spend the $63,000 to try once again to repair the train and, at that April meeting, Henning exclaimed, “What is our breaking point? When do we say, ‘Enough is enough’? For me, this is it. If it’s even $10,000 brought to us next year – then I’m probably done.”
At that same meeting, Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece said he would never bring the train before the commissioners again because, he said, rather than do that he would get under the train and repair it himself.
Even if Guilford County gets the train back, the county will still end up paying some of the money for track repair. However, about $47,000 of the money the board allocated may be saved.
Despite all the aggravation the kiddie train has brought county officials over the years, Guilford County commissioners and county park staff would like to see the ride at the park in operation on a regular basis. Though the attraction has been closed for nearly its entire existence, Northeast Park staff say that people often call and ask when the train will be running; and, recently, when the Rhino Times ran a humor piece that included a joke ad announcing the train’s grand opening, the newspaper got inquires to that effect as well.
It was a very popular ride during the train’s brief life when it was up and running in December 2015. When Northeast Park held a Festival of Lights celebration at that time, many kids rode the train and it, along with the Christmas lights, was the central attraction that night.