Paul McKibben reports:
A contract dispute may cause Lebanon to lose its landmark train, the Lebanon Mason Monroe Railroad, at the end of the year.
At issue: the city of Lebanon and the train’s owner haven’t reached an agreement on a new contract. The current four-year agreement expires Dec. 31. Lebanon City Council will discuss the contract at its meeting Tuesday night.
Brian Collins, CEO of Cincinnati Railway Co., the parent company of the railroad, said there is a 25 percent to 50 percent chance that the train will either move to nearby Mason or Canal Winchester, 15 miles southeast of Columbus. He said it would be operating in time for Easter.
The train operates from downtown Lebanon and offers scenic train rides through Southwestern Ohio. Its North Pole Express trip runs weekends during the Christmas season, lasts 1 hour 45 minutes and costs $20.50 for adults.
The train operates on five miles of track owned by Lebanon. The train leases the line, paying the city $5,250 annually, along with a 50-cent ticket fee. It costs the city about $200,000 a year to maintain the line, including five bridges.
The city, facing declining state revenue, could use the $200,000 for road work. Lebanon City Manager Pat Clements has said the city’s road maintenance program is underfunded by $1 million to $1.5 million annually.
“Council members universally like having the train here,” said Councilman Jeff Monroe, who owns a downtown business. “The question is really about whether or not it is a good lease in its current form.”
Collins said Cincinnati Railway has lost under $10,000 per year for the last four years and can’t afford to pay maintenance costs.
“There is no room for negotiation,” he said, adding that talks are near a stalemate.
Collins said the train could relocate in addition to Mason, or exclusively to Canal Winchester.
Mason has offered help in promoting the railroad and with parking, Collins said. Canal Winchester has offered free advertising and free use of its restored railroad station. In both Mason and Canal Winchester, the tracks would be free because the train has rights from RailAmerica, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based company that owns regional and short line railroads.
In Mason, the train would load from Brazenhead Irish Pub on Tylersville and Reading roads.
Collins said ridership for the train’s biggest event, featuring the cartoon character Thomas the Tank Engine, has dropped from 24,000 people six years ago to 10,000 this year. Overall, ridership is about 35,000 people per year, down from 50,000 five years ago.
The train has operated as the Lebanon Mason Monroe Railroad since 2006. It operates along the Cincinnati, Lebanon & Northern Railroad right-of-way, a freight and passenger line that opened in 1881.