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Published: 10/4/2006

Venerable tourist train just keeps on chugging

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Volunteer Conductor Jim Tully directs the Bluebird Special into the station in Waterville. Volunteer Conductor Jim Tully directs the Bluebird Special into the station in Waterville.
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Volunteer Karen Oles tells passengers about the interior of the tourist train. Volunteer Karen Oles tells passengers about the interior of the tourist train.
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The blue train crawled along the railroad track in Waterville, just as it has for 32 years.

A tour group from Southfield, Mich., like so many of the other tour groups that keep the Bluebird Special in business, listened while the wheels clanged and watched while the stone quarry and miles of farmland passed.

Rather than exit at the train station on Third Street in Grand Rapids, as tourists often did until 2000, these folks from Southfield and Taylor, Mich., waited patiently while the train paused in a wooded area in Providence Township and went back in the direction it came from.

A portion of the track one mile from the Grand Rapids station collapsed into a 30-foot ravine when the land it rested on subsided after a strong April storm six years ago.

"We're probably losing $30,000 to $40,000 a year because of that ditch," said Bill Linebaugh, president of the Toledo, Lake Erie, and Western Railway and Museum Inc., a nonprofit organization that operates the Bluebird Special.

The caved-in track isn't the train's only issue.

Rust grows where paint once covered the three-car Bluebird.

The insides of the cabin cars appear dated, and for good reason. One of them has been around since 1928.

"I was disappointed when I came out here and saw this," said Bob Brooks, a Bluebird co-founder. The Bluebird was first operational in 1969, running from Dorr Street and Secor Road until 1974. "Look at all this rust. It looks crummy to me. I think this train can be a real moneymaker, just like it was."

Mr. Brooks, who is no longer affiliated with the Bluebird, said he was concerned the locomotive may soon close. He said local government officials don't seem to be supportive.

Grand Rapids administrator Chad Hoffman declined comment about the Bluebird.

Mr. Linebaugh said the train is in no danger of shutting down. He said it made $80,000 in revenue last year, and had as many as 234 passengers for a single train run in August.

What Mr. Linebaugh is aiming to do is find the funds to solve some of the Bluebird's woes, beginning with the piece of collapsed track. He said he's had bids of anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000 to repair it, while Mr. Brooks believes a local contractor would complete the project for as little as $8,000.



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