Midland Railway settles three lawsuits, uncertain when tourist rides will resume

photo by: Elvyn Jones

The platform at Midland Railway in Baldwin City is shown on July 1, 2018. The railroad will offer "Polar Express" rides beginning this holiday season.

A once-popular tourist railroad in Baldwin City has settled an unpaid tax bill and a pair of lawsuits, but its future remains cloudy with no date for when train rides may resume.

The Baldwin City & Southern Railroad and its fellow nonprofit railway association also continue to face nearly $1 million in legal claims between the two entities, including a more than $300,000 dispute with the city of Baldwin City over a government-sponsored loan program the railway used. In addition, new cases continue to arise, with a ruling coming down last week against the railway related to back pay for employees.

The railroad may be best known as the Midland Railway, a nonprofit association that operated out of a historic depot in Baldwin City and offered a variety of excursion train rides, including “Polar Express” and “Thomas the Tank Engine” themed rides.

When, if ever, those type of activities will return to Baldwin City is unclear. A.J. Stevens, chief executive officer of the Baldwin City & Southern Railroad, said it’s uncertain when the nonprofit Midland Railway and its wholly owned for-profit subsidiary BC & Southern will resume tourist excursion rides. The operation has been shut down for more than a year. He also acknowledged Midland and BC & Southern, which have moved their headquarters from Baldwin City to Lawrence, are still the defendant in three lawsuits filed last year in Douglas County and Colorado, which seek judgments of more than $1 million. One of those disputes also involves the lease for the depot in Baldwin City, which has been used as the starting point for the train rides.

However, Stevens said the business is making progress on other fronts. Midland settled a tax warrant the Kansas Department of Revenue filed against the railroad by paying the amount due, Stevens said. Zach Fletcher, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Revenue, confirmed via email that Midland paid in January the full $5,938 due on taxes unpaid in September, November and December 2019.

Stevens said two other actions filed against Midland/BC & Southern in Douglas County District Court have been dismissed after the railroad paid the debt sought in the lawsuits. One of the debts was $33,105 owed to Musselman & Hall Contractors LLC, of Kansas City, Mo.; the other was $12,343 owed to Missouri Tie LLC.

However, other issues have emerged. The Journal-World received records from the Kansas Office of Administrative Hearings, which ruled last week on a wage dispute filed with the Kansas Department of Labor involving the Midland Railway Historical Association and a pair of employees who were performers on the railway’s “Polar Express” train theater productions in 2019.

The Office of Administrative Hearings ruled that John Robison and Erin Fox, both of Lawrence, were due $2,593 in wages, penalties and interest for work they performed but did not receive pay for, according to their contract with Midland.

Robison said he worked as director and Fox as assistant director for the theatrical performance associated with the 2019 “Polar Express” ride. Although far short of what others are seeking from Midland, the compensation is important to him, he said.

“As someone in the arts, I don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “But I do a good job, and I did amazing work for Midland.”

Statements in the ruling indicate neither Stevens nor anyone else from Midland appeared at the October hearing on the complaint. Stevens said Thursday that was because Midland was never notified the complaint had been filed. He said Midland would appeal the ruling as it has the right to do.

Midland and BC & Southern are recovering from financial difficulties, Stevens said. He said he is glad the railroad companies have taken action to pay off the obligations they incurred. However, even with those legal issues resolved, Stevens didn’t know when Midland/BC & Southern would again offer tourist excursion rides. Midland first suspended rides from Baldwin City to Ottawa in March 2020 because of a dispute with the Santa Fe Trail Association over its sublease of the historic depot in Baldwin City and then because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 guidelines continue to prohibit operation of the tourist train rides, Stevens said. The railroad would only offer the rides when the guidelines are relaxed and the pandemic abates to the point it is safe to allow people to ride inside “metal tubes,” he said.

The dinner cars of the Kansas Belle Dinner Train, which uses Midland’s tracks and locomotives, have also been sidelined the last year near the Baldwin City depot. Bruce Eveland, dinner train owner, said his last run was March 14, 2020.

He would like to offer Kansas Belle rides again, he said. However, his railway dinner cars and those of Midland are currently stranded in Baldwin City because of a string of coal cars parked on the railroad tracks just south of Baldwin City, Eveland said. Stevens has allowed Burlington Northern Santa Fe to park the coal cars on Midland’s tracks in an effort to generate revenue during the pandemic shutdown.

During a recent cleanup day at the depot, a Midland board member mentioned the possibility of moving the coal cars south of Norwood, which is about 5 miles south of Baldwin City, so that excursion rides could resume, Eveland said.

“It wouldn’t be ideal, but we could make that work,” he said. “That’s how far we went when the tracks washed out in 2018.”

Stevens said the number of coal cars was reduced recently, but he didn’t indicate when, or whether, all of them would be moved off the Midland tracks.

Despite the recent lawsuit dismissals, Midland and/or BC & Southern are still involved in lawsuits seeking more than $1 million in judgments against the railroad, Stevens acknowledged. The railroad is fighting those actions because it has disputes against the plaintiffs, he said.

The three cases are:

• A city of Baldwin City suit filed in December 2020 that seeks $321,000 loaned to BC & Southern through a Kansas Department of Commerce program. That case is scheduled for a September trial in Douglas County District Court

• A group of three actions that Rail Events Inc., of Durango, Colo., filed in August and September 2020 in La Plata County District Court in Colorado, seeking to recover a total of $660,000 plus interest from Midland’s alleged failure to pay royalties and other fees associated with “Polar Express” rides in 2018 and 2019 and “Peanuts” train events in 2019 and 2020.

• A Santa Fe Trail Association suit seeking to evict Midland from the Baldwin City depot subleased to the railway due to $6,457 in unpaid rent and legal fees.

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