It’s fun. How could it not be fun?
Smiling children. Smiling parents. Smiling grandparents.
Beautiful, sunshiny days with the wind blowing in your face.
Getting to ask people to do silly things, like stick their hands in the air and scream, or wave their arms and jump up and down while they wait in line.
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Learning a new skill set, fixing challenging mechanical problems, taking rusty old heaps of junk and returning them to their former glory.
These are all the experiences volunteers for the Kansas City Northern Railroad say they enjoy each weekend in the summer as they operate their miniature train railroad in Frank Vaydik Park.
The train has been operational for 25 years this summer. The mini railroad is a nonprofit volunteer organization and operates in cooperation with Kansas City Parks and Recreation.
While the railroad gave nearly 60,000 rides in 2016, the train is in many ways one of the best-kept secrets in town. Rides cost 75 cents.
The small group of dedicated volunteers, who thrive on smiles and the satisfaction of keeping a little bit of history alive, are hoping others will want to join them.
There are no prerequisites, exactly, although a mechanical inclination and a love of children certainly help. The group is really hoping to find folks who can work on the original old engines the trains still use. That skill set is getting harder and harder to find.
Those who keep the rides going explain the thrill of train travel still has an allure, even if most people travel by plane or car these days, and even if the train is a miniature version of the real deal.
They love seeing those kids smile and say they have the best volunteer job in town.
The group’s annual National Train Day event is what brings out many families and often volunteers for the first time. The group gives about 5,000 rides during the event, which also includes bounce houses, crafts and a smaller 12-inch train for the little kids to ride.
Volunteer Charlie Mejia had just moved to town when someone told him about the National Train Day event. He attended and got hooked. Mejia retired from Frito Lay but had always liked trains and mechanical work. Those skills come in handy as he attempts to figure out these historic engines
“This is my second season,” Mejia said. “It’s fun to see the smiles on all the kids’ faces and even the adults’. I had one lady walk up to me and tell me, ‘You’ve got the luckiest job in the world.’ I said, ‘I think so.’ ”
The Kansas City Northern Railroad was first formed in 1984 after the Kansas City parks department ran an ad in The Kansas City Star asking for those interested in starting a miniature amusement railroad. The current president of the group, John Sulzer, says more than 100 people showed up to the first meeting.
The group organized, formed a corporation and got started on their first project train — the original Swope Park Zoo train, put into service in 1953.
The Swope Park train had been retired from service in 1972, in favor of a larger style amusement train. It was placed as a piece of play equipment in one of the parks. Over time, the train rusted, became unsafe and was put in storage.
“One of the parks commissioners came across the rusting hulk of the Kansas City Southern Train in storage and remembered riding it as a little girl at the zoo,” Sulzer said. “It was in the basement of the old horse stable in Swope Park. It sunk into the mud and was just ignored for many years.”
It took the group from 1984 until 1992 to get the Kansas City Southern train in running order, find an appropriate park for a permanent train, build the track and finish out the building.
“They had no building, no money, no facilities. It became a community effort to paint, restore and rebuild the train and its engine,” said Sulzer.
While volunteers for the train have always come from across the metro area, the parks department eyed the Northland as a potential location from the beginning. The original idea was to locate the train in Penguin Park. Sulzer says neighbors opposed the idea.
“They really didn’t understand what a benefit it would have been to have it there,” Sulzer said. “So, they looked around at many other parks. This one (Frank Vaydik Park) turned out to be the one that was closest to being flat.”
The park, however, is off the beaten path. It was at one point slated to become a sewage lagoon area but was saved that designation because of archeological sites in the area. The railroad, which sits next to the Line Creek Community Center, was constructed before the community center was built, and few knew about the park.
The volunteer organization that works with the Kansas City parks department donates all of the labor and upkeep on the trains. The city built the building and owns the land, but the volunteers finished out the project and keep it going. They constructed the half-mile line and installed all the signals. They keep up with all the plantings and even maintain their own set of operating rules for the railroad. Without volunteers, there would be no railroad.
“It’s all volunteer labor. You’d work until the money or materials ran out, and then you’d have to go out and do some fundraising until you could do it again,” Sulzer said.
Liberty resident Maryanne Doty has been taking her three boys to ride the Kansas City Northern Railroad for years. She says 6-year-old Silas, 8-year-old Forrest and 10-year-old Jackson love trains. They ride a few times each summer.
“They just like everything about the train,” Doty said. “They like to go in the front. They like to go in the back. And I love the price. That’s the main draw for me.”
Since the July 1992 opening, the Kansas City Northern Railroad’s popularity has grown. The group also added two more operational diesel-style trains. One ran in the Pittsburgh Zoo in Pennsylvania starting in 1955 and was later retired to a city park in Manhattan, Kan. The other operated at the Ross Park Zoo in Binghamton, N.Y., from 1963 to 1986.
The track is a half-mile loop. Riders get to go twice around for the 75 cent charge. This fall, the group will have to pick up and re-lay the eastern portion of the line because of expected road construction on Northwest Waukomis Drive.
Volunteer Lou Kobet has worked with the railroad for about 18 months. He explains all of the trains were pretty pathetic looking when they arrived and have needed a lot of work.
“They were all nothing but rust bucket heaps,” Kobet said. “We restored them from the ground up.”
The group currently rotates the three trains in an effort to reduce wear and tear on any one train. All three are model G-16s built by the Miniature Train Company and operate on a 16-inch track. That means there is a 16-inch distance between the rails of the track.
The whole operation is a labor of love and filled with little details, like the “Harry Truman” car on the back end of one train, fabricated to look like the train car Truman used on the campaign trail.
The signals are real. Volunteers take their operational procedures seriously. The signs in front of the tunnel are the same found on a full-sized railroad. The signals flash at the road-crossing as the train approaches. The train operators blow the whistle, just as operators do on the full-sized trains that cross the country.
Some volunteers have had careers in the railroad business, but most have not.
“My working career was in micro-circuits at a wafer level, microprocessors, analog devices, chips,” Kobet said.
Now Kobet explains his work as a “Jack of all trades, master of none” for the Kansas City Northern Railroad.
These days, volunteers say need more people to run the train, serving in such roles as engineer, conductor or brakemen. They will train any volunteers regardless of their background.
It takes four people at any one time to have the railroad open. They have about 30 volunteers total, but like many organizations, a few people do most of the work. Right now, the group needs a few “masters” of engine work.
“One of the things we need more than anything else is people who are mechanically inclined and want to get involved,” Kobet said.
All of their current locomotives are powered by old Wisconsin V-4 28 HP air-cooled gasoline engines. In the 1950s, the engines were common in a lot of agricultural equipment like hay-balers. They were also used in industrial applications.
Sulzer says those old engines are obsolete now.
“You can still get parts for them, but finding people who have the expertise to work on them is very difficult,” Sulzer said. “We want to find people who might actually know something about these engines to see if we can squeeze another 10 years out of the actual historical — original engines.”
The group does have some engines to rebuild, and the parts to do so, but the only person they have been able to find to rebuild the engines lives in Minnesota.
“It’s a long way to go. Somebody who had the familiarity here who could rebuild would be awfully nice,” Sulzer said.
Richard Ritchie has been volunteering with the railroad for about three years. He first came down to take a ride with his young grandson.
“While I was riding the train, John talked my wife into half volunteering me.” Ritchie said. “I’ve been down here every weekend since.”
Ritchie said they all work together to try to figure out the engines and keep them running.
What most of them really enjoy are the children. He, like many of the other volunteers, loves seeing the kids excited about taking a ride.
“There’s just something about it,” Ritchie said. “Everybody grew up with trains. You hear a train, and it puts good thoughts in your head. It’s just fun.”
Kansas City Northern Railroad
What: Frank Vaydik Line Creek Park
Where: 60th Street and Northwest Waukomis Drive
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays; noon to 6 p.m. Sundays and some holidays. Open from the first weekend in May until the last weekend in September.
Tickets: Single trip for all ages 75 cents; 10 trip ticket $6.50; 20 trip ticket $12
All donations go toward railroad maintenance and improvements