Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 29, 2015

In the cab of the Iowa Pacific engine pulling the Polar Express Saturday were (from left) Larry Pitbladdo, engineer, and Larry Hart of Water Valley. The Panolian photos by John Howell

Polar Express profits will improve railway

By John Howell
Tickets sales for the Polar Express Train Ride in Batesville had reached 55,000 by last weekend, far exceeding Iowa Pacific’s initial projections of 30,000 to 35,000 when it announced last July that it would bring the holiday event to Batesville.
“There’s way more interest here,” locomotive engineer Larry Pitbladdo said last Saturday afternoon as he eased the big engine into the Public Square to board passengers awaiting a trip to the North Pole.
Pitbladdo is General Superintendent of the Saratoga and North Creek Railway, another Iowa Pacific holding in northern New York. He is here for the winter on special assignment for Grenada Railway.
“People on the train love it,” Pitbladdo said of the trip that takes them from the Public Square to the North Pole. He’s seen six of Iowa Pacific’s 12 Polar Express Train Ride operations, he said. None compares to the ride from Batesville, especially the lighted decorations placed by rail neighbors all along the route.
With Pitbladdo in the cab of the 1953 vintage diesel locomotive is the person who probably enjoys the trip more than any of those 55,000 ticketed riders. He is Larry Hart, mayor of Water Valley and arguably the linchpin of the deal struck to save the rail line between Southaven and Canton from salvage.
Hart has found success as a broker of large quantities of poultry to domestic and foreign markets, as a banker and as an elected official.
He has found much satisfaction for years in his role as a Sunday School teacher at First Baptist in Water Valley.
But before that — before he “followed his college degree and his father’s advice,” he said, into banking — he was a railroad engineer for Illinois Central Railroad.
In his heart, he’s never been very far from that first love.
“I drive out of my way to get blocked at a crossing,” he said as the locomotive gently rocked along during Saturday’s trip.
Hart’s concern was immediate when Canadian National in 2009 announced the sale of its “Grenada line” linking Memphis and Jackson to A and K Railroad Materials, a rail salvage company. Though A and K representatives tried to reassure local officials that it would continue to operate the line as Grenada Railway, LLC, Hart, along with local economic development and government leaders from the seven affected counties, soon formed the North Central Mississippi Rail Coalition to protect the region’s railroad.
The 2011 Grenada Railway announcement that it would the abandon the portion of the line from Grenada south, further solidified the unprecedented cooperation between the counties. The coalition gained legal status as the North Central Mississippi Railroad Authority (NCMRRA), and by 2014 successfully lobbied the Mississippi Legislature to authorize the issuance of $30 million in bonds to help finance the rail line’s purchase and another $13 million loan from the Mississippi Development Authority to complete the $43 million total needed to buy the line.
Throughout the complex process of negotiating the purchase and approval through layers of lawyers and regulatory agencies at local, state and national levels, Hart was the NCMRRA’s go-to person who could “walk-the-walk, talk-the-talk” of railroading.
When that process was finally completed last July Hart’s focus now, as he grasped handrails long familiar to him and pulled himself through the engine’s narrow doorway, is the success of the line’s new operator. Iowa Pacific will service the bond debt and MDA loan while reopening the line’s south section and improving the rail line throughout. It’s a tall order that the revenue from the Polar Express Train Ride will help fill.
In the engine, as the train began to roll forward, there was a sound like rushing air. It was sand dumped beneath the locomotive’s wheels to improve traction between steel wheels and rail, the former IC engineer said.
The long train lumbered forward, through the Highway 6 overpass at Whiskey Chute, past landmarks that were once familiar. It was a daylight ride, so we didn’t have the full effect of the lighted decorations along the route, but the wooded landscape basked under full sun on a beautiful day.
Radically altered was a cow pond not far from the overpass where a gang of us used to swim as teenagers. The cows are gone and trees have replaced what was once pasture.
Past the Finch-Henry Job Corps Center on to Shiloh Crossing where the train passed by a “hot box detector.”
It’s a safety device that measures the temperature of each rail wheel as it passes by, Hart told me.
Through Courtland, across the Long Creek trestle bridge until finally we arrived at the North Pole where Santa and his elves are waiting to board the train for the return trip.
It’s a good ride made especially memorable for having been in the company of the veteran engineer.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox