After a five-year absence, the Bluebird excursion train will head back down the tracks to Waterville sometime this summer.
Volunteers with the Toledo, Lake Erie & Western Railway & Museum, Inc., have been working for months to get things in order for the Bluebird's return. Improvements have been made to the track, and the nearly 100-year-old depot has been renovated.
“Much work has been done on the Waterville train depot during the last year,” said Kurt Teschendorf, a member of the TLE&W board of trustees. Phase one of the project, which involves remodeling the gift shop and washroom; leveling the structure, and painting it inside and out, will be finished shortly, he said. Work on the depot has been funded and staffed by the volunteers.
Items are being ordered to begin the process of stocking the gift shop, said Bill Linebaugh of Grand Rapids, president and chief executive officer of the railway. TLE&W is a nonprofit corporation set up in 1965 to maintain and operate for educational and historical purposes an excursion train on 10 miles of track between Grand Rapids and Waterville. The rail line originally was part of the Toledo to St. Louis rail line built in 1875. It was known as the Toledo, St. Louis and Chicago Railway, and later became part of the Nickel Plate Road.
Since service ended in Waterville in 1998, the train has been taking passengers on excursion runs between the two villages. The train, which has provided rides to more than 500,000 passengers, runs from May to November. Because of construction along railroad right of way, the temporary boarding area is near Yawberg Road and U.S. 24 northeast of Grand Rapids.
Volunteers have been trying to make repairs on a collapsed stone-arch tunnel that would allow the train to travel again into Grand Rapids to pick up passengers, but Mr. Linebaugh said resuming service in Waterville is the priority, in part, because repair costs for the tunnel are estimated at $45,000. TLE&W officials are trying to track down some grant funds to help pay for that project as well as other restoration efforts.
Although many are ready to welcome back the Bluebird to Waterville, some local residents are less than thrilled about it.
TLE&W lost its lease in 1998 after the village said the railway yard was a potential threat to public safety because of litter and debris. Some residents nearby had complained of noise and whistle blowing. The company relocated its equipment from the yard, but continued to maintain and use the property and the depot for its headquarters and other uses.
A new lease was awarded in 2000. Mr. Linebaugh said TLE&W has a long-term lease, and steps have been taken, including a reorganization of volunteers, to avoid problems.
Waterville administrator Jay Bahr said the village will be monitoring the railway's activities when the excursion train resumes operations.
Waterville can expect as many as 500 people on the railroad property at the same time during the peak season and special-event trains. “I do not expect that this noise will exceed that generated during other special events held each year in Waterville,” he said.
The village would be interested in buying the depot and other train property near Conrad Park and the public library if the opportunity arises, he said. Norfolk Southern Railway, Inc., owns the property and leases it to TLE&W. Company representatives have told him that as long as there are no complaints, it won't end its lease with the group, he said.
Mr. Teschendorf said many people want the excursion train, and many businesses and residents in Waterville support returning passenger service to the community.
TLE&W has met with members of the Waterville Chamber of Commerce, the local historical society, and a village official to discuss plans for the railway to host the 38th annual Nickel Plate convention. The September event will bring 200 to 300 people from across the country to Waterville, Grand Rapids, and Malinta, where the event will be held.