City mum on Engine 503’s fate

Published 6:30 pm Thursday, February 15, 2018

By Ken Stickney

Several railroad enthusiasts from around the country have expressed concern about the city of Port Arthur’s planned actions in regard to an historic locomotive at Bryan Park.

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One North Carolina city wants to know if it can have it.

Lucas Safrit of the Kannapolis, North Carolina Parks and Recreation Department emailed the Port Arthur News this week to say that his city, a suburb of Charlotte, has been searching for a steam locomotive for a “static display” in a city park. It wanted contact information for the city of Port Arthur.

“… My superiors would be interested in the possibility of discussing with Port Arthur officials about the possibility of working out a deal for the engine there,” Safrit said by email.

Train may have value

Steven Harvey, president of the American Steam Railroad Preservation Association in Ohio, said Thursday that Engine 503 in Port Arthur may yet have value to train preservationists and to collectors.

For example, he said the builder’s plate that bears the train number — he likened it to a vehicle identification number — might be worth $1,500 to $5,000 to collectors, if it winds up on eBay. The builder’s plate was on the train last week.

Collectors covet train whistles, as well, he said.

He said he learned about the city’s plans — it has hired private contractors to rid the train of asbestos and scrap it — through a Port Arthur News article. He said asbestos may present a problem, but not a serious enough problem to destroy the train. A greater danger, he said, is “scrappers,” business folks who break trains down to sell for scrap metal.

He said his railroad preservation society, a 501c3 non-profit organization, has been struggling to preserve rare trains such as No. 503 in Port Arthur, reportedly the last existing locomotive in the old Kansas City Southern 500 series line.

“The city loses nothing by making a donation to a 501c3,” he said. “It can write it off.”

City says little about its plans

But the city has been relatively mum about its plans. Scrapping the train was never mentioned in any public meetings; one City Hall insider said it was discussed only in the City Council’s executive — closed to the public — session. Councilmembers could do that, he said, because the expense of scrapping the train was under $25,000, which means it could be handled administratively, away from the public’s attention.

The city this week designated a woman in the Water Department to handle questions about Engine 503. The Port Arthur News sent her the following questions by email Wednesday:

  • There was a company called Total Safety — the company is located on Highway 365 — on the site at Bryan Park on Monday. Does Total Safety have a contract with the city to help remove the locomotive? If so, when did the city enter into that agreement? How much is the contract for? Was the contract put to a vote? If so, what was the vote?
  • At what meeting did the City Council vote to remove the locomotive? Or did they need to? Was there a vote? If so, what was the vote?
  • Was there any cost analysis or study on what to do with the locomotive? Did any professional engineers look at the site before deciding to remove the locomotive? Did anyone do a study? If so, who did the study? When? Where are the results?
  • Neither the Port Arthur Historical Society nor the Museum of the Gulf Coast said they knew in advance that the locomotive would be removed. Why were they not contacted in advance, at least for their expertise?

That designated spokeswoman did not respond by email Wednesday and did not respond to a second email on Thursday afternoon. Contacted at her work phone late Thursday afternoon, she said she was no longer the city’s spokesperson on the train, and said the city would issue a statement to all news media, perhaps as early as Friday.

Engine 503 remained at Bryan Park on Thursday afternoon, with heavy equipment nearby. No work crews were on site.