Archive for Thursday, November 15, 2012

All aboard the dinner train

Kansas Belle hopes to be offering mobile meals, entertainment soon

Ira Schreiber, part owner of the Kansas Belle Dinner Train, descends Monday from a dining car, which will be one of several cars to be moved to Baldwin City from Fremont, Neb. The owners hope the dinner train will be operating on Midland Railway’s 21-mile line sometime in December. BELOW: Schreiber talks about the train’s interior.

Ira Schreiber, part owner of the Kansas Belle Dinner Train, descends Monday from a dining car, which will be one of several cars to be moved to Baldwin City from Fremont, Neb. The owners hope the dinner train will be operating on Midland Railway’s 21-mile line sometime in December. BELOW: Schreiber talks about the train’s interior.

November 15, 2012


Midland Railroad dining car to open in Baldwin City

The Midland Railroad in Baldwin City is adding a dinning car to its fleet. The car will offer a five-course meal as it runs the rails between Ottawa and Baldwin City. Enlarge video

Kansas Belle's public financing

A number of public economic development financing tools made the move of the Kansas Belle Dinner Train to Baldwin City possible. Among them were:

• A $5,000 Baldwin Economic Development Grant.

• A three-year, $15,000, low-interest loan. The loan payments will be forgiven on an annual basis if the dinner train’s owners can demonstrate through ticket sales and Kansas sales tax records that the dinner sold 6,000 tickets and collected $5,000 of sales tax revenue in 2013, sold 6,500 tickets and collected $5,500 in sales tax in 2014, and had 7,000 paying passengers and raised $6,000 in sales tax revenue in 2015.

• A $25,000 Entrepreneurship Communities loan from the NetWorks Program, which makes money available for business opportunities in smaller Kansas communities.

• A $54,000 heritage grant from Douglas County to help build a short spur line equipped with utilities on which dinner cars will be parked when not in use.

Monday morning in a rock quarry north of Ottawa, a crane operator gently picked a 75-foot red dining car from the back of a semitrailer to place on two sets of wheel assemblies already on railroad tracks.

The car was pulled later in the day to Midland Railway’s Baldwin City yard, where it will be part of what is now called the Kansas Belle Dinner Train.

The use of the quarry site for the transfer was the latest adjustment the owners of the dinner train made to move their business from Fremont, Neb., to Baldwin City’s Midland Railway. Last week, they found there wasn’t enough room at the Baldwin City yard to transfer the first car, a 65-foot-long baggage car equipped with a generator that powers the dining cars when on the move, from its carriage behind a semitrailer to the railroad tracks.

All went well Monday, and Bob Eveland, manager and co-owner of the Kansas Belle Dinner Train, is hopeful that the remaining inventory of five dining cars and one caboose can be moved by Thanksgiving to Baldwin City and operating on Midland Railway’s 21-mile line in time to salvage some of the holiday season.

“I’d like to be operating at least part of December,” Eveland said. “That’s an important month.”

Eveland started exploring the move to Midland Railway more than a year ago out of concern the Fremont and Elkhorn Valley Railroad, a 15-mile excursion line that had been the dinner train’s home for 24 years, might not be properly maintained with its recent sale.

“It’s taken this long,” he said. “When we started talking, Midland Railway was at a point they felt it would enhance their overall financial operation and provide their customers with more options.

“We needed a place to live. The scenery is good. The railroad is in good shape. The location is good.”

Although the uncertain future of the Fremont and Elkhorn Valley Railroad prompted the move, Eveland also thinks the dinner car business will benefit from moving from a site dependent on the Omaha and Lincoln markets to one that taps into the Kansas City metropolitan area.

“It’s fair to say it’s a superior location,” he said. “At the same time, we’re close enough we think customers we’ve had over the years will find a good reason to come down to Kansas.”

The dinner train was at its peak before the recession; more than 10,000 tickets a year were sold for the experience that included a ride and meal on its four primary dining cars.

Eveland isn’t alone in anticipating tourists will find their way to the dinner train. The Baldwin City Council and the Douglas County Commission have helped bankroll the move because of that potential.

Midland Railway officials are also excited about the prospect of the dinner train adding to the 20,000 visitors it draws annually. The railway will receive payment from the dinner train for the use of its tracks and locomotive, but the Kansas Belle also will showcase a side of railroading history Midland Railway hasn’t been able to offer, said Mike Fox, president of the Midland Railway Historical Association.

“It’s another leg on the stool,” he said. “It will enable people to see scenic parts of Douglas and Franklin counties from a dining car — a part of railroad history that I don’t think is offered anywhere else in Kansas.”

The Midland Railway’s Sunday excursion train schedule would need to be tweaked next spring, but there would be no real conflicts with its existing late morning and afternoon trips on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays with that of the Kansas Belle, Fox said.

Eveland said the plan was for the Kansas Belle to duplicate the dinner train’s Nebraska schedule with Friday and Saturday evening runs and early afternoon Sunday trips. The Friday and Saturday trips will feature five-course meals. Formal attire is encouraged. Sunday outings are more informal, geared for families, with children’s menus available.

“It will be from the low- to mid-$60 range for the evening meal,” Eveland said. “Sundays are a little less.”

Meals on cars offering entertainment will cost more. As in Nebraska, customers will have the option of buying tickets on cars featuring mysteries, melodramas, recreations of World War II USO shows and other musical offerings, Eveland said.

Unlike the Midland Railway, which runs seasonally from April though November, the heated and air-conditioned dinner cars run 12 months a year. Eveland said it wasn’t yet known, though, whether the three-day a week scheduled would be maintained in the coldest, post-holiday months.

The Kansas Belle Dinner Train would hire roughly 15 part-time employees as waiters, bartenders, office clerks and custodians, Eveland said. It will also provide work for the caterer, who prepares the meals for the 70 people who purchase tickets for each trip, he said.

“We’re working on that,” he said. “I’m coming down this week to start getting that in place.”


riverdrifter 5 years, 5 months ago

Bob can call it the 'Kansas Belle' but I'll call it the 'Nowhere Flyer'. The dang thing runs right by where I hunt deer. Damn. I do hope it works out OK for them, though.

Bobby Burch 5 years, 5 months ago

Cool story, but Mr. Eveland's name is Bruce ... not Bob ...

RoeDapple 5 years, 5 months ago

At $60 plus per meal??!! No flippin' way! Seems the lesson of the Hereford House is too soon forgotten, there isn't enough market for over-priced meals in Douglas county. I give it a year . . .

Beth Bird 5 years, 5 months ago

$60.00 for dinner - per person?? Absolutely not!

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 5 months ago

It cost me $38 to eat at Teller's (that included a mandatory gratuity of 18%) for just myself one evening. I would imagine that being on a train would be worth an extra $22. And, I'm sure I didn't order the most expensive item on the menu.

Qualifier: that's an approximation. The total on the ticket for just me was $37.97. I don't think I'm going to eat there again anytime soon.

Clovis Sangrail 5 years, 5 months ago

I haven't been in a huge hurry to eat there, but now, knowing these is a mandatory 18 percent gratuity for even a single diner, I'm even less inclined to patronize the place.

And I usually tip 20 percent or better, but in this case, I can neither forgive nor overlook the loss of having to prerogative to do otherwise.

I would, however, try the train if that price includes the train ride.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 5 months ago

clovis_sangrail - I was in a group of 8 or so diners, I was not alone, and for the most part we paid separately. For a group of our size the gratuity was mandatory.

It was a very nice experience, and the food was excellent.

hyperinflate 5 years, 5 months ago

Don't think that all of Baldwin City thinks this is a good idea. Many are quite peeved that the City ponied up a "donation" as well as backed a loan to make this lead balloon fly. It'll be all over and done with in 16 months or less. Then we citizens of BC will have some fine dining cars to use for storing old tires, etc.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 5 months ago

Years ago, many old railway cars were converted into inexpensive housing. There was one across the street from where I lived as a child, but it was removed about 1965. As of only a few years ago, there were a series of old railway cars southwest of Lawrence maybe 15 miles that were being used as a home. They are most likely still there. And, in the movie 'Harold and Maude', Maude's home was a converted caboose.

youngjayhawk 5 years, 5 months ago

Sounds like fun! I look forward to having dinner on board when it is up and running.

attorney1776 5 years, 5 months ago

While I am generally not in favor of these type of taxpayer funded financings of private ventures or city-built industrial parks, the city is very minimally exposed here and it's a done deal. I might have been hard to convince to vote for this, but now that it is a fait accompli, let's make it work.

I say let's give these gentlemen some encouragement and support to make this a success for them and everyone in town. I have met the guys involved and they are train enthusiasts and genuinely want to offer all of us a great benefit.

Reading all this sniping and the negative comments in the Signal and LJ World is not a "welcome mat" for the risks they are taking to benefit all of us too.

Their target market is the surrounding populations within 250 miles. That encompasses a very large potential customer base that is comfortable spending $60 for a good meal and trip. And those folks will spend additional dollars in the area and provide employment for our community.

Keep in mind they ran a successful and profitable operation in Nebraska for 24 years. Part of the reason they needed financial assistance coming here was the short time frame they had to make decisions and move the equipment.

Those that complain about the shortness of the current track system should realize that as the system adds equipment and income the track system can grow and improve. Although there would be huge obstacles, a rebuilding of the tracks to Lawrence through the Vinland Valley would be great someday.

I intend to keep an open mind, refrain from criticism and give these guys their opportunity to show us what they got without insulting them upfront.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 5 months ago

Why don't we talk about some real money, like $600,000? In my opinion, the taxpayers of Kansas were fleeced for that amount some time ago, and not a single commenter thought a thing of it.

I was the only commenter to point out that does not appear to be a good investment, and in my comments, I detailed exactly why. And exactly no one else had anything to say. $600,000 of their tax dollars must have been pocket change to them.

riverdrifter 5 years, 5 months ago

I'd wager that the dinner train succeeds. When the Midland started up decades ago, nobody gave them much of a chance. Well, they've got their little railroad in fine shape and they keep chugging away. Time will tell whether the dinner train flourishes.

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