All Guilford County wanted for Christmas was to have its kiddie train up and running at Northeast Park, but the county’s not going to get that.
In July, Guilford County sent the train to California to be fixed “within 90 days,” a timeline that would have brought the repaired train back home by October. However, the county’s seemingly jinxed kiddie train is still on the West Coast, some 2,200 miles away, and now it looks like there’s no saving the train’s engine, which has become known as the Little Engine that Couldn’t.
The kiddie train’s cars are reportedly being repaired in California, but the county may buy a new engine at a greatly discounted price. Officials now hope to get the attraction open at Northeast Park in early 2018, but only a madman with no knowledge of the train’s long problem-filled history would put any money down on that bet.
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. Over the years there have been so many attempts to fix the train and the tracks that it’s difficult to say exactly how much the county has put into the effort, but the best estimate based on available information is that that number is over a half million dollars.
However, in the last six years, the train has never run for any length of time, and for nearly all of that six years, the train has sat idle in a storage shed at the park. It did miraculously run a few weeks in December 2015 during the park’s Country Lights Aglow and, at that time, it was enjoyed a great deal by kids and adults alike – until it broke down again soon after.
Earlier this year, county officials were hoping the train would be running at the park by this Christmas season, but that’s not going to happen. County officials are still hoping to eventually get the train operational without spending any more than the $63,000 in new money the county allocated in April 2017 to fix it, but an evaluation of the train track at Northeast Park has shown it will need more extensive repair than anticipated – even though that track was built only five years ago and has hardly been used.
In addition, state inspectors are now saying that Guilford County must build a fence around the attraction before it will pass inspection. The fence will cost about $10,000 according to preliminary estimates. It’s likely Guilford County will buy a new engine for the train, which it expects to get for the greatly discounted price of $10,000.
Earlier this year, when the Board of Commissioners voted to spend the $63,000 to save the choo-choo that’s been the source of major headaches for years, 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 Repair 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.
That July offer by Western Train had many Guilford County officials scratching their heads, since the county has had an ongoing dispute with the company over the train for years.
That 90-day mark has come and gone, but now the commissioners have an offer on the table to buy a new engine for about $10,000. Western would repair the train cars, provide the new engine and return the train to Guilford County. That’s the plan at least.
Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece said this week that Guilford County is likely to get the new engine to replace the old one since the county would be getting such a good price.
“They’re giving us a 2015 engine that’s never been run for $10,000,” McNiece said, adding that that same engine would ordinarily cost “well in excess of $100,000.”
McNiece said the California company is repairing the train’s cars. Though those cars have hardly been used, there are issues with them coming off the train track.
Then there’s the fence. County officials said that, originally, state inspectors didn’t require that Northeast Park attraction to have a fence, but once the train gets back they will. One source said state officials indicated that the train attraction at Northeast Park should have been required to have a fence all along, but an oversight by an inspector allowed the ride to be permitted without that.
The good news is that the projected costs combined aren’t expected to cost any more than the $63,000. The commissioners are likely to vote to purchase a new engine at the discounted price at their next meeting on Thursday, Jan. 19.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson represents much of northeastern Guilford County, where the kiddie train has sat idle for years. In July, when the train company offered to take the train and fix it for free, Branson said it sounded suspiciously too good to be true, but he also said at that time that just about anything was worth a shot when it comes to the train. Now that the 90-day period has come and gone, he’s sounding a little more wary and he said the track is in bad condition.
Branson also said he was alarmed at the rate of demise of the train track at the park.
“The ties have rotted and need to be replaced,” Branson said. “I was surprised to see that treated material decay so fast.”
He said he believed that, within 30 to 45 days of the commissioners’ decision regarding the engine, the train could be up and running.
Branson, who once called the train situation a “damn nightmare,” was just elected chairman of the board. When asked if could guarantee that, by the end of his first term as chairman in December 2018, the long sought after kiddie train at Northeast Park would be up and running, he said he could not.
“I wouldn’t say that for love or money,” Branson said.
He added that the fence that state inspectors are now requiring is a new issue that has to be addressed.
“They have some rosebushes around it to keep the kids out, but I think the fear is that, with kids playing in the area, they might throw a ball in there and then go on the tracks if there’s not a fence there,” the chairman said.
It’s also interesting to contrast the experience of Guilford County with that of the City of Burlington and the train that’s 14 miles away from the Northeast Park train. Burlington has had a kiddie train at Burlington City Park running since the late 1930s.
According to Rachel Kelly, the public information officer for the city, the current train began running in the ’70s, and ran well until 2012, when it underwent a major overhaul including a new engine. Since then, it has been running with the exception of a period 2016 when flooding damaged the tracks and later when an automobile accident damaged the structure.
One area train enthusiast, Mike Small, who has contributed to train magazines for decades, conveyed a recent experience.
“I was bike riding in Burlington Sunday and heard the park train running,” Small wrote in an email. “To my amazement they were running in October and up until dark. I quickly locked the bike to a pole and got a ticket – $1. This is the same type of train with a C. P. Huntington locomotive like the one at NE Park but this one has been running for many years, even when our kids were little. This one is from Chase Manufacturing in Wichita, Kansas.”
It is also interesting to note that, while Guilford County has been working on getting a kiddie train at the park operational for six years and still does not have one, in the 1860’s, the 1,912-mile long Transcontinental Railroad was completed in six years.