COLUMBIA — When Mark Vaughn was a little boy, he was fascinated by the trains that ran through his neighborhood in Valentine, Neb.
The Chicago and North Western Transportation Co. was the railroad line with tracks that ran through his hometown. The train crews would pick him up and let him ride along until they switched tracks at the town depot, he said.
The Columbia Star Dinner Train departs at 7 p.m. every Friday and Saturday for dinner and at 11:30 a.m. Sundays for brunch. Here's a look at the prices:
- Tickets for the dinner ride are $69.95 per person, not including tax, gratuity and drinks.
- Brunch train tickets are $49 per person, not including tax, gratuity and drinks.
- You can go to dinnertrain.com or call 474-2223 for more information or reservations.
Vaughn's infatuation with trains grew. Eventually, he went to work with the railroad after high school, traveling across the country with large freight railroads in various roles such as conductor, engineer and manager.
Now, Vaughn owns the Columbia Star Dinner Train and gets to enjoy his love of trains every day.
"Most children just get a model train," Amando Garcia, car captain and manager, said of Vaughn. "He gets to own the real thing."
The dinner train recalls a bit of Columbia's railroad history. The Wabash Railroad began running through town in the mid-1800s but disappeared decades ago. Its name, however, lives on; "1951 Wabash" is emblazoned in light blue on the dinner train's locomotives.
The train has two locomotives and three rail cars, all of which date to the 1930s.
For the past five months, the dinner train has been offering passengers 2 1/2- to three-hour round-trip rides between Brown Station Road in north Columbia and Centralia. The train's capacity is 224 passengers, plus about 25 employees.
The train, operated by Central State Rail, runs on the city-owned COLT railroad. The Railroad Advisory Board learned in a report last week that the dinner train served almost 5,000 passengers from July through November. It made payments to COLT totaling $12,500 during those five months, according to the report.
Vaughn bought the train in 2006 and began restoring the old equipment. The dinner train was his idea from the start. He said he has been overwhelmed by the local support and patronage.
"I love seeing people enjoy it," he said.
General Manager Greg Weber has known Vaughn since he was in high school, when Vaughn worked for him in the railroad industry. Weber, who also has been in the train business for decades, owned the country's third dinner train and has since helped set up about 13 others.
Establishing the Columbia Star wasn't easy. One major obstacle was resistance from people with disabilities. They have complained that the train, which has been subsidized by the city of Columbia, is inaccessible and does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Central State Rail has said the cost of adding an accessible car to the train is cost-prohibitive but has promised to add one as soon as it's affordable.
Difficulty finding people to renovate the train also delayed its start. Since its arrival, however, business has been positive.
"Nothing out of the ordinary has happened," Weber said. "We have very satisfied riders and are very pleased with the results."
On Saturday, the train was packed with riders who appeared to be enjoying themselves. The aroma of prime rib and roast chicken filled the cars as people settled into their seats. Passengers chatted and laughed while waiters and waitresses bustled back and forth to ensure everything was in place.
In the spirit of the holidays, the cars are decorated with sparkling ceiling lights. Tables are adorned with warm candles and situated beside large windows that invite customers to gaze outside.
Garcia, who is also in charge of reservations, is most satisfied by the glowing faces he sees when he greets the riders.
"I give them special attention," Garcia said. "I have been on every weekend run, and I am personally connected with each guest."
The reception and response has been great, he said, but he hopes the new year brings younger riders.
"I want to promote the train to those 35 and younger. It's a great experience that not many people know about," Garcia said.
More events are planned, such as a New Year's Eve ride and a special Valentine's Day event.
Cameron Finley, owner of Old Monroe Lumber Co. in O'Fallon, brought his company's employees aboard for a surprise Christmas function.
He said he learned about the dinner train online.
"It sounded fun, and we loved the idea of it," Finley said. He has since recommended it to many people.
Garcia called the train "a piece of history" and noted that grandparents sometimes bring their grandchildren to the train, reminiscing about the days when people would ride the train from city to city for something as simple as a dentist appointment.
Now, however, the dinner train's horn sounds at 7 p.m. to signal its departure for a long and relaxing dinner ride. Although it's dark out, one can make out the smoke floating on the crisp air. Horns sound as the train glides down the tracks — and back in time.