Midland Railway has ambitious plans in wake of recent success and $750K grant

Midland Railway has ambitious plans in wake of recent success and $750K grant

photo by: Elvyn Jones

New passenger cars are lined up Jan. 4, 2020, near the old Santa Fe depot in Baldwin City. The cars are among the seven that the Midland Railway wholly owned for-profit subsidiary Baldwin City & Southern Railroad purchased in the last two months after receiving a community development block grant.

Buoyed by a successful second year of the holiday season Polar Express rides and a $750,000 state grant, Midland Railway is upgrading its passenger cars and making ambitious plans that include a possible railroad museum.

Wrapped up in those plans are changes that stem from the Midland Railway Association board’s decision last year to create a wholly owned for-profit subsidiary, the Baldwin City & Southern Railroad. A.J. Stevens, who is leaving his position as Midland CEO to take a similar position with the BC & Southern Railroad, said the new arrangement would allow Midland to focus on its nonprofit mission of public education of railroad history and historic preservation, while the BC & Southern would be responsible for all active railroad operations, including the tourist excursion rides Midland has offered since 1987.

The new BC & Southern Railroad is enjoying the prosperity from the successful six-week run of Polar Express rides offered through a partnership with Warner Brothers Entertainment, Stevens said. For the second year in a row, all the rides based on “The Polar Express” movie sold out, he said.

Adding to the success was the $750,000 grant it received in November. Baldwin City Administrator Glenn Rodden said the city applied to the Kansas Department of Commerce on BC & Southern’s behalf for the community development block grant. The grant revenue is actually made available as a loan with 4% interest.

BC & Southern is using the grant to finance the transition from the all-volunteer Midland operation, which had volunteers doing everything from selling tickets to operating locomotives, to an employee-based operation. Stevens said $400,000 would be used for railroad operations, and BC & Southern pledged in the grant application to hire at least 22 people.

“We will hire more than that, but we’re committed to 22,” he said.

BC & Southern will spend another $310,000 of grant revenue on railroad maintenance and $20,000 on new passenger cars, Stevens said. BC & Southern also is spending $800,000 of its own money on the new cars, he said. The remaining $20,000 will be used to help Baldwin City with the $23,000 cost of hiring the Southeast Kansas Regional Planning Commission to administer the grant.

The car upgrade includes two new passenger cars, two new dining cars, a bar car and a power car that provides electricity to the other cars, Stevens said. In addition, BC & Southern bought a lounge car with a small bar that has been parked for years west of Baldwin City on U.S. Highway 56.

“That was a very historic car, especially for us,” Stevens said. “It was a Santa Fe Railroad car, and we’re an old Santa Fe line.”

The new cars indicate the BC & Southern’s immediate emphasis will be on tourist excursion rides, despite the railroad receiving a federal exemption in September to haul freight. Stevens said the BC & Southern has contracted a study of the upgrades needed to ensure its track, culverts and bridges can handle heavier freight traffic, Stevens said. He added, however, that any freight service from Baldwin City to Ottawa would probably not happen for at least five years. A greater priority is the planning for a railroad museum to be built on its Baldwin City property, an endeavor that the Midland Railway Association would spearhead.

“The museum is our No. 1 priority,” Stevens said. “There is a railroad museum in Wichita, but nothing in this area. We think it would be a good match with our other activities.”

Midland has contracted a consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study for the museum and the possibility of securing federal funds for the project, Stevens said. The firm is a national leader in helping plan projects financed with sales tax revenue bonds. So-called STAR bonds are economic development tools that allow the sales taxes generated from a new commercial or tourism endeavor to be used to pay off bonds used to finance that development.

Stevens said early concepts called for a 30,000-square-foot museum on Midland property in Baldwin City with an open space large enough for conventions.

Midland has also entered into partnerships that will make Baldwin City the permanent home of two operating steam locomotives, one of which is the same model as the locomotive in Lawrence’s Watson Park, Stevens said.

BC & Southern has bought 50 acres of land along its tracks about 6 miles south of Baldwin City to use as a rail yard, Stevens said. The yard will allow the BC & Southern to move the cars now parked in Baldwin City out of town and to perform the noisy task of switching cars, he said.

The recent prosperity contrasts sharply with Midland’s precarious position in August 2017, when the railway found it necessary to approach local governments and economic development organizations for financial help to repair a section of track washed out from a flash flood. Midland could use only the northern 5 miles of the track for more than a year before Baldwin City paid $188,000 and Douglas County $94,000 to buy easement for a future multiuse trail along the length of Midland’s tracks.

“We experienced similar flood damage this past summer,” Stevens said. “We were able to take care of it without asking for any help.”

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