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Published: Wednesday, 5/10/2006

Train tours treat guests to a mix of sightseeing and entertainment

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
TLE&W chief Bill Linebaugh, strolls down the tracks next to the Waterville-based Blue Bird. TLE&W chief Bill Linebaugh, strolls down the tracks next to the Waterville-based Blue Bird.
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In bygone days before airplanes and automobiles reigned supreme, and certainly long before anyone imagined $3 per gallon for gasoline, passenger trains were the best way to travel not only between big cities but also to and from all the smaller places in between them.

While Amtrak still operates a basic network in the United States, the humble locals that once connected rural communities with the outside world delivering not only passengers but also milk, mail, and packages succumbed to motor vehicle competition decades ago. Removal of the tracks themselves often followed as cargo transport shifted from rail to road.

Vestiges of that slice of American history live on at excursion railroads scattered across the country, and several such lines are within easy day-trip range of the Toledo area. During trips that typically last 60 to 90 minutes, riders can relive the past from their coach seats as farmhouses, fields, woods, and streams amble by outside their windows.

Dana Fields Sell entertains passengers on the Blissfield-based Old Road Dinner Train.
Dana Fields Sell entertains passengers on the Blissfield-based Old Road Dinner Train.
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Two Michigan lines offer three-hour dinner train tours for passengers seeking to relive the elegance of the first-class dining car, often combined with live entertainment such as murder-mystery scenes, music, and comedy shows. The Old Road Dinner Train, run by the Adrian & Blissfield Railroad out of Blissfield, Mich., costs $69.95 per person, while the Michigan Star Clipper dinner train, based in the northwestern Detroit suburb of Walled Lake, Mich., costs $79 person. Fares do not include bar service or gratuities.

While the dinner trains are intended for adult passengers only, the shorter day trips are marketed for children of all ages and cost much less typically about $10 per person and often less for seniors and children.

Closest to Toledo is the Blue Bird passenger train operated by the Toledo, Lake Erie & Western between Waterville and Providence. On Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays from now through October, the train departs Waterville at 1, 2:30, and 4 p.m. for a trip through the fertile fields and woods along the Maumee River. During June, July, and August, the Blue Bird also runs on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 10:30 a.m., noon, and 1:30 p.m.

Several theme excursions are planned for this year, TLE&W President Bill Linebaugh said. They include a circus theme in June with Foop the Clown and other circus performers; American history trips in July with an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, and a local history event in August featuring Laurie Dickens, the Apple Creek, Mich., author of Wreck on the Wabash, a recount of a 1901 train disaster on a different line in the region.

And before Halloween, the Blue Bird will take on a haunted-train appearance and encounter mock train robbers along the way.

The Blue Bird boards at the depot on Sixth Street in Waterville, with fares of $9, $8 for seniors 60 and over, and $5.50 for children ages 3 to 12. Younger toddlers and infants ride for free.

From its depot along U.S. 223 on the east side of Blissfield, Adrian & Blissfield runs family excursions every Saturday from June through October, with conductors providing historical narration about railroad and local history during the 90-minute run to Lenawee Junction, just east of Adrian, and back. The train passes through the center of Blissfield and near the village of Palmyra along its route and is particularly popular during fall-foliage season.

The A&B trip uses part of the region s oldest railroad line, the route linking Toledo with Jackson, Mich., and costs $10 for adults, $9 for seniors 55 and over, $6 for children ages 3 to 12, and is free for children under 3.

Operating on another section of the original Toledo-Jackson line is the Southern Michigan Railroad Museum, which is based in Clinton, Mich., and runs excursions to Tecumseh on Saturdays through September and a fall foliage train from Tecumseh to Raisin Center and back on October weekends. Their train has a conventional coach along with a gondola with seats for open-air riding.

The Old Road and Michigan Star Clipper dinner trains usually run in the evenings, although the Old Road offers some Sunday luncheon runs, too. A family-oriented excursion train operates on Sundays at the Michigan Star Clipper site.

Both the Old Road and Michigan Star Clipper trains are available for private charters.

All of the aforementioned trains run with diesel locomotives, albeit relatively old ones. For those seeking to ride behind a steam engine, the closest regularly scheduled train is on the narrow-gauge Huckleberry Railroad, based at Crossroads Park near Flint, Mich.

The Huckleberry operates on weekends and selected weekdays starting Memorial Day weekend and daily from June 10 through Labor Day. It also will have Halloween and Christmas trains in October and December.

The Huckleberry will be the closest tour stop for A Day Out With Thomas, featuring Thomas the Tank Engine. The locomotive from the children s television series is scheduled to run there on Aug. 18-20 and Aug. 25-27. Thomas also will appear on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad on May 20 and 21 and Memorial Day weekend. The Cuyahoga Valley railroad has stops in the Cleveland suburb of Independence, Akron, Peninsula, and Canton.

Toledo also is well-placed for those desirous of riding behind larger steam engines.

While there are no regularly scheduled trains of that type nearby, the Pere Marquette 1225 the steam engine used as the template for the locomotive in The Polar Express is based in Owosso, Mich., and usually has made several longer-distance excursion runs in recent years on several routes in central Michigan, along with short-distance holiday specials based in Owosso.

The Ohio Central Railroad in Coshocton, Ohio, operates several steam locomotives and will be the host of several excursions during this year s National Railway Historical Society convention on July 18 through 22.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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