After being in California for nearly a year, Guilford County’s much maligned kiddie train is finally back home in its shed in Northeast Park.
County officials now say that, after seven years of trying and spending over $600,000 to get the train project on track, the kiddie train could finally be in operation by the end of the year. The train – which has been dubbed “The Little Engine that Couldn’t” – now has a new engine and it is once again telling itself, “I think I can, I think I can.”
In 2011, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to approve the purchase of a kiddie train for Northeast Park, and now, seven years in 2018, some county officials are feeling more confident than ever that Guilford County will eventually be able to open a ride at the park.
Last summer, the train was sent back to the manufacturer in the latest effort to get it functional. After repairs to the passenger cars and the purchase of a new engine at a greatly discounted price, county officials are keeping their fingers crossed.
Guilford County Communications Manager Worley Smith said this week that the train is now back in the park, and he added that, while the county is currently addressing other priorities, it is beginning the effort to get the train running once again.
According to Smith, the county spent $10,000 on an engine that has been billed as like new, and other work has been done on the train as well. Smith said that, before the train is running and open to the public, county workers need to calibrate the track to accommodate the new engine, conduct a thorough inspection of both the track and train and teach county parks staff about maintenance, inspection and operation of the track and new engine. County staff, Smith said, will also need to conduct load tests on the engine and the refurbished passenger cars.
In the seven years of trying to get the train running, it has sat almost exclusively in a shed at Northeast Park. The train has made only a small number of successful trips with passengers over the last seven years. After its arrival in Guilford County, the county commissioners and other county officials managed to get a ceremonial ride in it before it broke down right away. And, in December 2015, the county had the ride open to the public for a Christmas lights festival.
The ride was unquestionably a hit for the kids, who stood with their parents in long lines in the cold to ride it. Once the train is up and running, county officials say the county will be able to charge a dollar a ride and the ride will be a “money maker.” However, the train will first have to recoup the more than $600,000 that has already gone into the project.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson, who represents the constituents who live around Northeast Park, said he hopes the kids would be able to ride the train for the Christmas festival at the park this year. When asked if that was a guarantee from him that the train would be running by then, Branson said, “Absolutely not.”
In an email, Smith stated that Guilford County is working toward opening the attraction. However, the project must get in line.
He wrote, “The safe operation of our aquatics centers, heightened demand on landscaping crews, and increased traffic at all our parks facilities places a seasonal demand on our staff during the Summer; ensuring clean, safe, and accessible parks, while maintaining our standard for excellent customer service is our priority. While we have not set a grand opening date for the train; we are excited to have the new engine on-site and are working towards a safe and timely opening.”
Worley went on to write that the county is currently evaluating “potential dates for re-opening” based on the factors cited.
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners approved the purchase of the kiddie train for the park in 2011. The engine cost about $170,000 while the tracks ran nearly $200,000.
In July 2017, after years of failed attempts to get the train running, Guilford County sent the train to California to be fixed “within 90 days.” When the Board of Commissioners voted last July to spend the $63,000 to save the train, it was estimated that fixing the track would cost about $16,000 and engine repairs would be about $47,000. At that time, Guilford County chose Diesel Engine and Heavy Equipment of Burlington to repair the train. However, when Diesel Engine contacted Katiland Trains – the California-based company that sold the train to the county and now operates under the name Western Train Co. – Western offered to come get the train, repair it at no charge and return it to Guilford County in running condition within 90 days. Though it took much longer than 90 days to get the train back – and it wasn’t free – county officials are happy that it appears to be running.
State inspectors also said they require a fence around the track to ensure the safety of park patrons. The state originally didn’t require a fence, however, last year a county official said that a state official said a previous inspector made a mistake and the fence should have been required all along. Guilford County will build that fence as part of the train project.
Commissioner Hank Henning said the current Republican board inherited this mess from the Democratic controlled board that was in charge until late 2013.
“That ship had sailed and sunk before we arrived,” Henning said of the train.