The sad Little Kiddie Train that Couldn’t that’s been stuck in a storage shed at Guilford County’s Northeast Park for over a year – and for almost all of its existence – may come chugging back to life if the Guilford County Board of Commissioners approves $62,000 in funds to fix the train at the Thursday, March 16 commissioners meeting.
Over the last five years, Guilford County has spent about a half-million dollars to get a working miniature passenger train as an attraction for children at Northeast Park, and there have been many attempts to repair it in the past. If the commissioners approve a new effort to get the train up and running, they will discover whether once again this is a case of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown – or whether it’s an instance where the old adage “The third time’s a charm” applies. Only, in this situation, it would be a little more like the 14th time’s a charm.
Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece spoke at the Guilford County Parks and Recreation Commission meeting last month and asked for feedback on whether or not the county should repair the train.
At that Tuesday, Feb. 14 meeting, McNiece said it would cost about $62,000 to get the train up and running: $47,000 for the train – mostly work on the axles – and $15,000 to repair the track. At that Valentine’s Day meeting, John Gladstone, an employee with the parks division of the county’s facilities department, spoke on the train, which facilities staff support repairing. After a lot of discussion, the Parks and Rec Commission voted to recommend fixing the train and this week the commissioners will make the final decision.
The move doesn’t legally require a vote by the county commissioners; however, the train has become such a hot-potato matter that the staff decided it was wise to turn the item over to the Board of Commissioners.
Northeast Park lies in Guilford County’s District 4, represented by Commissioner Alan Branson, who serves on the Parks and Recreation Commission. At that parks and rec meeting, Branson voted in favor of the recommendation to repair the train and the motion passed unanimously.
However, the initiative might not have such an easy time of it when it comes before the Board of Commissioners. Branson will no doubt have some convincing to do. Commissioner Hank Henning, for one, said he wants to hear the discussion at the commissioners meeting before he makes up his mind, but he added that his first inclination was to not go down that track again.
County staff had initially put the train repair on the commissioners “consent agenda” – usually a list of routine housekeeping type matters that require little to no discussion. However, county commissioners realized this would be a controversial item, so they have now put it under “new business.”
Several county officials say there are good arguments on both sides. On the one hand, there’s the question of “throwing good money after bad.” On the other, the county has invested six years and about $500,000 in getting a working train, so it’s tempting to take one more shot at making it operational for another $62,000.
Guilford County has now consulted with some big guns when it comes to small trains – Tweetsie Railroad – and there’s optimism among the experts that the train can be saved.
The motion presented to the commissioners will include some wiggle room since it asks the board to approve a project cost “not to exceed $68,000.”
Information accompanying the motion that the commissioners will vote on reads: “The Northeast Park train requires repairs to the locomotive, cars and track system in order to be operable. It is a very attractive feature of the park and there have been numerous inquiries from citizens asking if it is in operation. Considerable effort has been expended diagnosing the problems with the train system, and experts from Burlington, NC, and Tweetsie Railroad were also consulted. A local vendor from Burlington, NC, who previously reconditioned the Burlington City Park train, has provided a proposal to perform all needed repairs on the train to get it back in operation. It will also be necessary to contract with another vendor to make needed repairs on the track. It is estimated to require approximately ninety days from contract award to complete the repairs with a total cost not to exceed $68,000 … [The] Parks and Recreation Commission unanimously recommended completion of this repair.”
McNiece said this week that there were several things to consider.
“We looked at ‘Do you fix the train?’ We looked at ‘Do you replace it?’” he said, adding that staff also considered the consequences of giving up and getting rid of the train and the track.
McNiece did not mention whether staff took into account the fact that the train is cursed.
He said it would cost a good amount of money to tear up the tracks and he added that preliminary estimates are the train itself could only be sold “for scrap metal.”
It’s hard to believe something the county paid $370,000 for six years ago would now only bring scrap metal prices. Perhaps they could sell it to some unsuspecting city or eBay buyer – there’s a sucker born every minute.
Guilford County is likely to be able to secure a guarantee that the train will work for at least one year after the $47,000 repair is made.
As it is now, the county has paid out about $500,000 for a month or so of operation. A less expensive plan might have been to provide all the kids who come to the park with Amtrak rides to Disneyland in California and give them a day pass.
In 2011, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to purchase the amusement park ride that initially cost county taxpayers $370,000. The engine and cars cost about $170,000, while the track cost roughly $200,000. Back then, Guilford County held a competitive bid process and bought a new Katiland C.P. Huntington train – with the hope and expectation at the time of purchase that it would be operational in 2012.
Now, in 2017, the ride is closed, as it has been for nearly all of the past six years. It was a very popular ride during the train’s brief life running in December 2015. When Northeast Park held a Festival of Lights celebration at that time, many kids rode the train and, along with the Christmas lights, it was the central attraction. It was up and running for the festival and for a matter of weeks after that, but then it broke down again and went back in the shed.
Other than that time and a few others, however, the train has sat out in plain view, immobile, or in a shed, and has been on periodic practice runs while kids looked on longingly and wondered whether they would ever get to ride the train.
This is one of a string of problems Guilford County has had with parks after taking over the operation of the county’s parks system nearly five years ago. Until then, the management of the county’s parks was handled by the cities of Greensboro and Burlington, and Forsyth County – local governments that, unlike Guilford County, had experience running parks.
In one situation, for instance, a Guilford County park had a baseball field that was unusable for competitive play because it had the wrong measurements. In another instance, the county spent a great deal of money – one former parks worker estimated $200,000 – to restore a historic farmhouse at Northeast Park to teach school children and other visitors about farm life a century ago, but that project was never completed and no educational tours have been given.
One source familiar with the train said this week that the experts discovered that the train did very well when going in a straight line; however, problems occurred whenever it took turns.
It would obviously be out of the question to have the train only go in a straight line because, in order to arrive back at the station, it would need to travel completely around the world. That much track and bridgework would be cost prohibitive and there’s also the fact that it would be extremely difficult to get the needed right-of-way permissions from multiple foreign countries. Also, the trip would take about three years.