COLUMBIA — The Columbia Star Dinner Train is on the tracks in Boone County.
After six months of delays and debate, the vintage train cars pulled into Centralia on Wednesday afternoon, said Mark Vaughn, president of Central States Rail that owns and operates the train.
When service begins, the train will travel between Columbia and Centralia and offer appetizers, drinks and a five-course meal by candlelight. Four restored dinner cars from the 1930s and 1940s will seat up to 224 passengers. The ride will last about three hours and cost $69 per person.
Restoration of the dinner cars was mostly completed before the train reached Missouri. Now, Central States and Columbia are working on parking, bathrooms and ramps for the train on Brown Station Road in north Columbia.
Vaughn said his company was shooting to begin operating the dinner train between April 1 and mid-May. “We’ll start taking reservation 30 days in advance of the start up,” he said.
As the day of the first run nears, Central States will complete inspections, hire staff, and, finally, start selling tickets.
The Columbia Visitors and Convention Bureau approved $45,000 in June 2010 from the Attraction Development Fund to help get the train from Iowa to Columbia. At the time, service was planned to start in August.
Those plans slowed, and in the fall questions were raised about the lack of access for people with disabilities. Central States said the $175,000 cost of making a vintage rail car accessible to people with disabilities wouldn't work financially. In September, the Columbia City Council approved a compromise plan that approved the tourism funding for the dinner train and required Central States to make one of the cars accessible within five years.
“We, as disability advocates, understand that not every business can be made accessible,” Gretchen Maune, chairwoman of the Mid-Missouri Advocacy Coalition, said. “Our main concern is that public tax dollars were used. People with disabilities are taxpayers, too.”
“We want to be an all-inclusive attraction,” Vaughn said. “In the meantime, we’ve worked up some plans on one of our existing cars.”
This new plan could bring a fully accessible car to the train within 12 to 18 months. Vaughn was quick to point out these plans are preliminary and the engineering is yet to be done.
Since receiving council approval, the cars have slowly been making their way from their previous location in Waterloo, Iowa, to Centralia.
“I think it's very close,” Amy Schneider, interim director of the tourism bureau, said on Monday. “I feel safe to say it will be up and running in the spring.”