By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When visitors to Bluefield’s Lotito City Park see the Ridge Runner coming down the tracks, odds are Tim Blankenship is the man behind the wheel.
Blankenship has been the conductor for the train since it reopened at the park in 2011, but his first experience with train tracks came from working in the coal industry.
“I worked on tracks underground in the coal mines in the 1970s and 1980s for Consolidated Coal Company,” Blankenship said. “The tracks here are similar, but the cargo on the Ridge Runner is much more precious than in the mines. Working in the mines taught me how to deal with things like water on the tracks because it’s always wet in the mines. The tracks in the mines are smaller than your average railroad track, so that is similar too.”
Conducting the train is not Blankenship’s sole job. He said a lot of work goes into making sure the train is ready to run on the weekends.
“The train is old and it was made in a time before machines like cars were pre-lubricated,” Blankenship said. “We have to lubricate everything. We have to maintain and gauge the track. The track expands and contracts with the temperature, so you have to repair it during the week if it has spread. You have to make sure the track is level and there aren’t any branches or debris on the track.”
Blankenship said repairs to the train can be difficult as the parts built for the train aren’t readily available.
“We try to plan ahead and back order parts just in case, but you can’t anticipate everything,” Blankenship said. “We have to order any parts and supplies for the train from Chance Morgan, the company that built the train. The company is still operating and they are based in Wichita, Kan. Anything but gas and oil has to come from them. They don’t make this model of train anymore, but they still produce a model that is very similar to this one for amusement parks. There isn’t much demand for trains like this anymore. The people from the company said this train is one of five of its kind still in existence that they know of.”
Before the train starts running each weekend, Blankenship and other employees with the Bluefield Department of Parks and Recreation walk the track to make sure everything is safe.
“We come in early on the weekends, check the tunnels and open them,” he said. “We grease the track so the wheels can turn. We fuel up the train, grease it and then oil it up. This is a high maintenance train. There are always kids lined up before noon, especially on Saturday. On Saturday we always have a line before noon. We keep the train in the tunnel until around 11:30 a.m. but as soon as we bring it out kids come from all over asking when the train rides will start.”
When he first started as conductor, Blankenship said he expected the majority of his passengers to be children.
“My wife and I are semi-retired and I’ve always enjoyed working with children,” he said. “We thought children would be the main ones riding the train when it started, but I find just as many grown people ride it. I would say it’s about 60 percent kids and 40 percent adults who come to ride the train.”
Nostalgia is what brings a lot of older riders out, Blankenship said.
“A lot of the older people remember the train being on the mountain and want to show it to their grandchildren,” he said. “Part of it is the nostalgia of riding the train. A lot of them want to see the old pictures of what it looked like when they were kids. We have three generations of riders who come to this train. They want to get the younger generation interested in the train, which isn’t that hard.”
With railroads prominent throughout the area, Blankenship said the Ridge Runner is a chance for many local children to connect with something they see every day.
“The kids in this area grow up around trains,” he said. “They see the trains going by their homes and schools. There is always a train in Bluefield. They hear train whistles all the time. This gives them a connection to something they see all the time. They can’t ride on the trains they see, but they can ride on this one. It’s something they are familiar with.”
Many young riders also come armed with plenty of questions for the train’s conductor.
“The kids want to know if we can go faster,” Blankenship said. “They ask about the tunnels and the bridges. They also ask if they can drive the train. I get a lot of questions about the lights on the train. I try to explain to them what signal lights are and how they were used on the railroad. Most of the kids want to go two or three times around the track before they will get off.”
Over the course of the past three years, Blankenship said the train has gained several regular riders.
“There are a lot of families who come up almost every weekend,” he said. “More people come out when the weather is good. There are mothers and grandmothers who have told me they bring their child down here so they will quit asking when they can ride the train. A lot of people come to the park just for the train. We have kids who come and ride because they were at a birthday party or a family reunion in the park and saw the train here.”
Not all of those riders are from Bluefield.
“We get riders from the local area and Tazewell and McDowell Counties,” Blankenship said. “We get several riders from out of state, especially from the Carolinas. A lot of those people rode the train as a kid and wanted to come see it again. We had a retired couple from Texas come through the area in a motor home and they stopped by to ride the train.
Blankenship said the Ridge Runner carries hundreds of riders across the tracks on an average day.
“I consider 400 to 500 people a good day,” he said. “More than that is a little hard to handle. We ride between 25 and 30 people depending on how many children and how many adults you have. If you only have children, you can seat about 40 but the more adults on the train the less people you can seat. The younger kids sometimes want mom or dad to stay with them, which we appreciate because the parents help keep the kids in their seats. Once the kids reach about 10 or so they don’t want Mom or Dad riding with them anymore.”
Though passenger rails are not as popular as they once were, Blankenship said a chance to ride the Ridge Runner is still an exciting prospect for many local youngsters.
“At first the train was sort of a novelty, but as it goes on it grows,” Blankenship said. “It amazes me that children are still interested in something that seems so simple. It’s like a yo-yo. Kids still want to play with it as time has gone on. The children are why I do it, I guess.”
Visitors to Lotito City Park can ride the Ridge Runner on Saturdays and Sundays during the summer from noon to 6 p.m. for $1 admission.
— Contact Kate Coil at firstname.lastname@example.org