The Little Engine That Might 

A train group in the Flats fights to jump-start an old-time railroad. It won't be easy

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With the new buzz and spirit of activity at the roundhouse, new members have gradually followed — boosting membership to 168, with about 50 who routinely volunteer. Korpos is contemplating deals with vocational schools and companies like Lincoln Electric, who could train welders at the roundhouse, using train parts that happen to need welding.

In fact, Korpos has become a master dealmaker. Midwest just signed a contract to maintain all of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad's cars — a pact that will bring the group a half-million dollars over several years. Korpos' bargain acquisition of a high-end industrial pressure washer made the difference.

"All they have down there is a mop," he says delightedly, indicating the still-simmering rivalry that developed between Midwest and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad after their split.

"Without Midwest, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad wouldn't exist," Korpos says through a chuckle. He delights in the fact that, to this day, callers must dial 4070 to get the Railroad's reservation line.

Korpos has connected with John Birmingham, a Colorado millionaire and a long-lost customer. Twenty years ago, he sent the vulture car and others cross country to be restored. He never came back for them.

Recently, Birmingham agreed to give Midwest a power car, which the group badly needs to run with 4070 and generate electricity for the passenger cars. He's also handing over the lone remaining double dining and kitchen car in the U.S. "We will be the only railroad in the country that can have 68 people for dinner at the same time!" Korpos says, unable to stifle his glee — and unsullied by the many logistical and regulatory roadblocks that could hinder such a quest.

And what does Birmingham get?

"I don't know yet," says the 82-year-old owner of a chemical manufacturing company. "Those details aren't exactly worked out. I hope I get a free pass to ride on their railroad or something." Birmingham says he always liked the old guard from Midwest, though "they didn't seem to get much done."

"But Steve sounds like a real go-getter. I feel really good about him and am in a position to help him."

Korpos and Midwest could use all the help they can get.

Not long ago, a break-in set their efforts back even further. Thieves loaded up a U-Haul in the middle of the night with $50,000 worth of wheel bearings off 4070, selling them for scrap for $750. Fortunately, members made a sweep of area scrap yards and bought back all but two for $780. Now the group has hidden 4070's headlight so it doesn't turn up missing.

There's a storage building next to the roundhouse that has seen better days, and in this case, Korpos is perhaps overly optimistic. He wants a model railroad group to adopt and renovate it to display their model trains, in exchange for free rent. "We will help them fix it up," he says. So far, no takers.

Then there's the water problem. Lots of it. Somewhere under the vast expanse of working CSX tracks behind the roundhouse is a water main break that dumps 1,000 gallons into the ground every hour. An awful lot of it shows up in the work pit underneath 4070 and under the turntable out back. Calls to CSX have gone unanswered for years.

Amid it all, open houses are in the works (see above), classes being offered to aspiring brakemen, conductors, and engineers, and restoration constantly under way. Just last week, four diesel locomotives were donated, prompting talk of reinstating mystery trips and grander excursions traversing the country — perhaps even to Hawaii, as part of a travel company's no-airplanes specialty package.

"See, the railroad ties are made of wood. They float," Zeyer explains, checking to see if anyone actually believes him.

With a diesel locomotive and cars that are permitted to run on Amtrak lines, there is no limit to the possibilities they see — if you look past the $1 million Korpos estimates it would take to get their vehicles up to Amtrak specs and the two years it would take to get each additional passenger car restored.

For 4070, no amount of restoration will be enough: The steamer will never be fast enough to run on Amtrak passenger lines, though it may someday pull cars along shorter, slower routes.

As for Korpos? Since his rough ride a couple years ago, he has settled into a new home in North Royalton. There's no garden railroad in the backyard and no plans to build one there. He has no idea what his ex even did with the trains. "I hope she gave them to my grandchildren."

Korpos has shrugged off model railroads, perhaps permanently. He's got six days a week to keep his mind occupied, and bigger trains to get back on the line.


Caboose Rides This Saturday!

Whether you're hankering to sit high above the tracks in a locomotive cab or just sit in the seat Robert Redford had in The Natural, Saturday is your day.

The Midwest Railway Preservation Society will host an open house from noon to 4 p.m. on May 12, featuring in-depth tours of the historic B&O roundhouse and all its railroad cars and equipment. Volunteer experts will guide groups through the two-plus-hour walk around the site, with new tours starting every 30 minutes. For the kids, there will be 20-minute caboose rides. "We find that little girls tend to be more interested in trains than little boys," says roundhouse supervisor Steve Korpos. He can't explain why.

"Everyone here knows a lot about some things, but no one knows the whole story of everything here," says Korpos, encouraging repeat visits. "So if you have a different guide, you get a completely different kind of tour."

Requested donation for the open house tour is $5, or $3 for train buffs under 12. Private tours for groups, organizations, and schools are available by appointment. The roundhouse is in the Flats at 2800 West Third Street. For more information, call 216-781-3629 or go to midwestrailway.org.

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