ELLIS – The Polar Express in Ellis will have a little more flair this year.
The engine of the miniature Aerotrain replica, which has become a popular feature of the town’s railroad museum, has been undergoing renovation since August and is set to make its debut at the annual Christmas event on Dec. 1.
Probably the most noticeable change will be a new paint job.
“Originally it was gray, and then somebody painted it light blue. So we’re going back to silver. It’s kind of like the original color but a little more flair,” Dustin Vine, owner of D&B Body Shop, said as he looked over the unpainted fiberglass body of the engine last week in his shop.
But the work of Vine and employee Cody Spencer goes deeper than just looks. They took the whole thing apart and even rebuilt some of it.
Some of the work they did was to repair damage done to the train after it was vandalized in the summer of 2017.
“I think there was more than they thought,” Vine said of the damage. “A lot of the drivetrain I think got tweaked. It possibly broke the transmission mount, so the transmission dropped on the driveshaft,” he said.
He said if the train had continued to run, that could have caused more damage.
Years of use took their toll on the body, too. Every hole in the body had cracks stretching out from it, Vine said.
“I think there were three miles worth of cracks,” he said with a laugh.
Aside from filling the cracks and sanding the body to prepare for painting last week, Vine said, Spencer rebuilt the u-joints put in new seals. The bell works again, and the transmission and engine — from a 1955 Ford and 1961 Ford, respectively — were overhauled.
They even added a heated seat for the engineer.
The train was the second Aeroatrain replica built, according to its serial number, in 1955 by the Ottaway Amusement Co. of Wichita. It’s believed fewer than a dozen were built. The trains were scale models of General Motors’ streamlined design that was intended to draw passengers back to train travel in the mid-1950s.
Vine said getting into the workings of the train has given him a new appreciation for it.
“One thing I learned after tearing this apart was how well-made it was,” he said. “Whoever did it knew what they were doing. They put a lot of thought and talent into it,” he said.
He points to the wheels as an example.
“Each wheel is powered, so it’s not like just two wheels run it all,” he said.
“It’s a great design. It’s a real piece of art,” Vine said.
The work on the engine is made possible by grants and donations. One donar provided $100,000, according to Dena Patee, director of the Ellis Alliance. Grants came from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation of Logan for $40,000 and Midwest Energy for $1,000. Other local donations total $11,000. A few other grants and local donations may also be coming in, Patee said.
Th passenger cars will be refurbished at a later date. Getting the engine done has been Vine’s main goal, and he even brought his father, Dennis, out of retirement to help keep up with customer work.
The replica was brought to Ellis in the 1990s by Francis “Buddy” King, an Ellis businessman and former mayor. He purchased it from a tourist attraction in Michigan.
He died not long after, and the little railroad was named the BK&E, for “Buddy” King and Ellis, becoming an attraction tied into Ellis’ railroad history.