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Published: Thursday, 7/26/2001

Bluebird train crews undaunted by hurdles

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Maintenance work and a collapsed tunnel have temporarily derailed plans for the Bluebird excursion train to resume operations in the villages of Grand Rapids and Waterville.

But like the little engine that could, the Bluebird is still running, taking passengers on a one-hour, nine-mile round trip through scenic Waterville Township.

Plans call for the Bluebird to return to both villages when the tunnel is replaced and tracks are repaired, said William Linebaugh, president of the Toledo, Lake Erie & Western Railway and Museum, which that runs the excursion train.

A 125-year-old stone arch tunnel was damaged in April following a heavy rainstorm, Mr. Linebaugh said. Since then, TLE&W officials have been working with state and county officials to get plans approved to replace the tunnel.

Trains had been passing over the tunnel since about 1875, Mr. Linebaugh said. The tunnel is outside the village of Grand Rapids, which means that the Bluebird cannot travel into town to pick up passengers.

Instead, passengers are boarding the Bluebird at the Grand Rapids American Legion post's pavilion area.

Some residents in the area are assisting with water and other facilities.

Last week, about 200 guests took a ride through the countryside as part of a reunion of the Willys-Overland-Knight Registry, Inc. Members of the group own cars that were built by the Toledo Willys-Overland Co.

Guests included people from Australia, Canada, and parts of the United States, said Mr. Linebaugh, who noted that the Bluebird's passenger list this year has included visitors from Ireland, Ukraine, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Oregon.

The Bluebird should be returning to the village of Grand Rapids this season.

“The intention is to commence construction this August” on the culvert replacement, Mr. Linebaugh said. “After that, we will resume operations back into Grand Rapids.”

After some maintenance work, he said they hope to resume operations in Waterville this season.

Although some residents are eager to have the excursion train operating again in Waterville, others are in no hurry to see the Bluebird back in town.

Waterville officials have said that the village will closely monitor the Bluebird's operations when it returns.

Residents who live near the rail yard also plan to keep an eye on the train, which is operated by a nonprofit group of volunteers.

The Bluebird lost its lease in 1998 after the village said the railway yard was a potential threat to public safety because of litter and debris. The train had shuttled passengers between Waterville and Grand Rapids.

During a public meeting in the fall, Waterville residents discussed the return of the Bluebird and listed issues stemming from past problems with the train, including trash, piles of railroad ties that served as homes for skunks and other animals and excessive blowing of the engine horn.

Thomas Mattis, village administrator, has had several meetings and discussions with Norfolk Southern, the yard's owner, to address concerns.

At this point, both Norfolk Southern and the Bluebird operators know that “we are concerned,” Mr. Mattis said.

Village officials have said they are skeptical that things will be different this time, “but Norfolk Southern is determined to give them a lease and the Bluebird is determined to give it another shot,” he said.

Although there has been some speculation that village officials want to run the Bluebird out of town on a rail (so to speak), that has not been the goal, Mr. Mattis said.

There has been some discussion that the village could create a bike path if the train tracks were abandoned and removed, but officials have not had any active part in discussions about wanting to obtain the land for park space, Mr. Mattis said.

“That's not our plan,” he said when asked about the park possibility.

When the rail yard, which is located near Conrad Park, is not used for a long period of time, it is natural for people to start thinking about other uses, Mr. Mattis said, noting that it is frustrating for him when people look for some sort of village conspiracy in the matter.

When the Bluebird resumes operations in Waterville, TLE&W must respect neighboring property owners and residents, Mr. Mattis said.

“We want them to be good neighbors,” he said.



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