503 gets some 2nd looks, funding effort initiated

Published 7:07 pm Friday, February 16, 2018


By Ken Stickney


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A railroad historian who’s authored a book on the Kansas City Southern said he’s “shocked” by Port Arthur’s actions and explanations in trying to dispose of Locomotive No. 503 in Bryan Park.

But representatives of a Kentucky company sent to inspect the locomotive on behalf of clients said city officials have been “incredibly helpful” in giving them leeway to determine what purposes the locomotive might have, if it can be reclaimed.

In an emailed statement to the Port Arthur News, Steve Allen Goen of Wichita Falls, author of “Kansas City Southern Color Pictorial,” a 1994 book, said he called Port Arthur City Hall this week and was told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was forcing the city government to deal with the train to abate asbestos that was present.

Goen said the 503’s headlight, bell and builder’s plate were removed, as was the boiler jacket.

In better shape

“For what it’s worth, the 503 is in far better shape now that the jacket and lagging have been removed as it would make the boiler drier and easier to paint,” Goen said. “There is no other asbestos on steam locomotives except around the boiler jacket.”

Goen insisted that the city would have needed at least two public votes before scrapping the train. The contract, he said, would have required a vote in open session; a second vote was needed to dispose of the locomotive, which is city property.

Port Arthur Mayor Derrick Freeman said items that cost less than $25,000 can be handled administratively and don’t require votes in open session. He said this week that council members simply nodded in agreement to removing the locomotive and accepting a bid to handle the asbestos.

Engine No. 503 is said to be the last existing locomotive of the 12 built in the 500 series for the Kansas City Southern. The series was built between 1913 and 1920.

The train operated for about 44 years, and was donated to the city of Port Arthur in 1957. It has been at Bryan Park in the 1000 block of Gulfway since then.

Too much exposure

Jason Sobczynski of Next Generation Rail Services, a railroad maintenance and repair company located in Alvaton, Kentucky, drove six hours to inspect No. 503 on Friday, with full cooperation from the city.

He said his company is rebuilding a steam locomotive in Grapevine, Texas now.

Sobczynski said the 503 suffered for 60 years of exposure to the elements, especially salt air. He pointed to several spots on the locomotive that have been rendered brittle because of that exposure.

He pointed to other portions of the locomotive where water likely froze and damaged parts of the engine.

Sobczynski said the train likely holds little value as it is, even to scrappers. He said at best, it would be worth about $7,000 if it were cut and packaged properly to be shipped.

The cost of moving the locomotive would be “astronomical.”

Value historical

The value, he said, is likely historical. He pointed to various locomotive features — some ornate —adding that locomotives of that era were built with an “air of class.”

Sobczynski and co-worker Nick Hovey said they would continue to inspect the locomotive into the night to make recommendations on its possible value.

The city’s relationship with the 503 has been uneven over the years. In the 1980s, the city’s parks and recreation director made it plain that the locomotive was too costly to maintain.

But moving the engine was not easy. City leaders in the 1980s and 1990s held a variety of views, from disposing of the train to moving it elsewhere to donating it to another city or a museum.

Concerns about the engine arose most recently in connection with Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey, mostly because there was a fear that flooding would carry asbestos and oil into neighboring yards and houses.

Sobczynski said city officials seem open to alternatives to destroying the train, and the company with which Port Arthur contracted, Inland Environment, was willing to work with those who would reclaim the locomotive, within the terms of their contract unless the city gives them more time.

Sobczynski created a GoFundMe page Friday to help save the locomotive, which the page calls the Louisiana & Arkansas 503, for the subsidiary of the KCS for which the locomotive used to operate.

The page seeks $50,000.

It also says a “sister” locomotive, L&N 509, survives in Cookeville, Tennessee.