A kiddie train that Guilford County paid nearly $400,000 for, and took five years to get up and running, has jumped the tracks and now sits immobile once again in a shed at Northeast Park, where its fate is uncertain.
Now county staff and commissioners are contemplating whether they should spend even more time, money and effort to get the train running – or whether the county, as some are now suggesting, should just cut its losses and accept that the train is cursed and is forever doomed to be The Little Engine that Couldn’t.
Northeast Park lies in Guilford County commissioners District 4, which is represented by Commissioner Alan Branson. This week Branson said he had recently learned the news of the train being back out of service – though it turns out the train has been quietly sidelined for months. Branson said he’s convinced the county bought a real lemon five years ago when it purchased the train from a California company.
“I couldn’t believe I was hearing about this again. I thought we had conquered that monster,” Branson said. “The kiddie train is back down. It’s jumping off the tracks. My understanding is that it derailed. The sad thing is that – it’s my understanding – everything has been paid in full and we’re left with the sad faces of kids who can’t ride the choo-choo.”
In 2011, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to purchase the amusement park ride that has cost county taxpayers $370,000 – plus the additional funds, and a great deal of staff time, in attempts to fix the train over the years. The engine and cars cost the county about $170,000, while the track cost roughly $200,000.
At that time, the county held a competitive bid process and bought a new Katiland CP Huntington train – with the hope and expectation at the time of purchase that it would be in use soon. Now, in late 2016, the ride is closed to the public and has been for most of the year. In the past five years, the attraction has been unused by the park visitors except for a brief interlude when it was working late last year and early this year. It was a very popular ride during the train’s brief Indian summer last winter and early spring. For instance, when Northeast Park held a Festival of Lights celebration in December, many kids rode the train and, along with the lights, it was the central attraction that night.
Other than one brief period of a few months, however, the train has sat out in plan 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 as some county officials and parks staff had done from time to time on the brief occasions when it was working.
Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece said this week, when asked about the current state of the train and the county’s plans for it, that he didn’t wish to comment on the train or its future.
When Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing was asked about the kiddie train not being operational, Lawing said he was unaware of that fact.
The ride was not licensed by the state until May of last year. Neal O’Briant, a public information officer for the NC Department of Labor, stated in an email this week that the inspection license for the train has expired and no new one is on the way at this point.
“The inspection is good for one year,” O’Briant wrote of kiddie train inspections. “Last year’s inspection was in May, so the certificate of operation has expired. The park has not applied for an inspection this year. When they have the train ready to run, our Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau will have to inspect and certify it again before it can be opened to the public.”
The Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau people are unlikely to see that inspection request listed on their schedule anytime soon – and maybe not ever.
One Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Department employee familiar with the situation said the train was relegated to the storage shed after repeatedly jumping the tracks. That employee said that Thomas Marshburn, the former division director of parks for the Facilities, Parks and Property Management Department, couldn’t find a solution.
“Thomas kept saying he was going to get it fixed,” the source said, adding, “It has never been mentioned since he left.”
Marshburn left Guilford County government earlier this year to take a job for less pay heading up the Davidson County Parks and Recreation Department.
Guilford County’s website for Northeast Park, which describes all the other activities and attractions at that park, does not mention the train or acknowledge that it ever existed there.
The parks employee who spoke with the Rhino Times said parks staff has never really been exactly clear on what the problem is.
“That whole thing has been a guessing game,” the employee said of the train, adding that at first it was said that the tracks were uneven, then it was believed that the tracks “settled wrong.”
According to that source, the county has had some experts come out and look at the train but those efforts were to no avail.
“They gave up on it too,” the employee said of the consultants, adding that now the county is stuck with it. “They can’t sell it – they don’t know what to do with it.”
Earlier this year, Guilford County did try to repair the train periodically, and was able to get it running, but there were times the train would stop halfway through the ride and all the riders would have to detrain and walk back to the parks’ version of a train station. Eventually, parks workers said, the ride was just too unreliable to even try to operate.
Branson said he thinks the problem dates back five years to the bid process conducted by the county at that time.
“I’m always leery of taking the lowest bidder from an out of state vendor on the West Coast,” Branson said of the California company that won that project bid. “That thing has been a pain in the ass since day one. It stinks that we can’t have it open to the public.”
Some county officials say privately that they think it’s about to the point now where the county should just cut its losses and stop putting any more money into it. However, Branson said he doesn’t think the county should give up on the train yet. He said there may be a “minor adjustment” someone could make to fix it – if the county just brought the right expert in. He also suggested the county might want to call in some help from Burlington’s parks and recreation department because that city has operated a popular children’s train in Burlington City Park for years and seems to know how to do it. (That ride in Burlington experienced some damage in the flooding last week.)
Branson said Guilford County should get whatever expert help it needs to get the train issues worked out.
“Maybe we can get the Rotary Club to help us out there,” Branson said.
The five-year history of the train fiasco – now heading into its sixth year – has been full or setbacks. For instance, in 2015, the county got the train running but there was one little problem for the little train that turned out to be a big problem: Guilford County didn’t have the right owner’s manual necessary get state approval to open the ride. It was only after repeated calls to the Katiland Trains, the California company that provided the train, and some negative press from the Rhino Times, that the company finally sent the county a manual.
That delayed the opening even after the train was operational.
“Kids are dying for this thing,” Marshburn said at that time. “You don’t know how many calls I get from people asking when the train will be open. Trains are very, very popular attractions. It’s going to be rusted out before it opens. It’s a good thing I’ve got that shed.”
When running, the train can carry a total of about 56 people at a time. The county had planned to offer rides some special rides throughout the year, such as a “haunted Halloween” train ride in late October and a “sweethearts’ ride” on Valentine’s Day. However county officials seem to feel as though those train trips won’t be as enjoyable for patrons if all they do is sit on the train and remain in one place – though the Valentine’s Day ride for couples could conceivably be a draw for young men who bring dates, since they do not seem to be adverse to vehicle breakdowns when with a woman they fancy.