This street train is Corner Brook's runaway summer success

It's red, white, a little ridiculous — and people love it.

Train averaging about 400 riders a day, far exceeding expectations

This is what happens when you cross Thomas the Tank Engine with the Canada Day aisle of a dollar store. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

It's red, white, and a little ridiculous-looking. And it's a runaway success.

The crowds have come out in droves to try Corner Brook's "street train," which has been chugging along a loop of the city's core since the beginning of July.

The train is on wheels — literally, no tracks involved here — and on any given day, there are lineups at its most popular stops. On the sunniest of afternoons, would-be riders have sometimes been turned away, leaving even the city officials who brought it here in the first place taken aback.

"We thought it would just add something new, and signal to businesses around that we're serious about the tourism game," said Mayor Jim Parsons.

"I don't think any of us really anticipated, I guess, how much of a smile it would bring to the general population."

At its start, the city speculated maybe 100 people a day would take a tour. But according to Parsons, the train is averaging 400 riders daily.

To put that in perspective, Corner Brook's public bus system hasn't topped 250 riders per day in the last 10 months.

Both Parsons and train driver Martin Batstone said there's a few dozen regular riders who appear to be using the train as a daily commute, despite the train's confined circuit from West Street to Broadway and back.

Train fans, young and old

Dubbed the Mill Whistler, the train's kid-appeal is obvious, like an ultra-Canadian Thomas the Tank Engine, complete with canned sound effects that blare out every few minutes of its run.

"It felt bumpy and awesome," said Noah Murrin, after stepping off the train with his mother. "In fact, I would sleep and live on the train. I love it."

Noah is hardly alone in his locomotion devotion. Ashley Chalmers agreed it's a hit, having just ridden the train with two six-year-olds.

"They saw it whistling around the corner and they all started freaking out, so we had to oblige them," he said. "The kids loved it."

Train driver Martin Batstone shares a high-five with a satisfied customer.

While it seems like every child in Corner Brook has taken a ride, it isn't unusual to see the train roll by with only adults aboard its two, open-air passenger cars. 

Cynthia Murrin, in the city for the day from Cox's Cove riding the train with her daughter Robyn, was every bit as excited as her daughter to take a ride — to the point where she didn't want it to stop.

"We're not getting off. We're going for another lap," she said, dutifully paying the $2 fare a second time as she completed the circuit, even though there isn't too much ticket enforcement going on.

Gamble pays off, perhaps 

"It's largely an honour system," confirmed Parsons, although the city is keeping a close eye on the train's bottom line.

The City of Corner Brook paired up with its port authority to lease the train for the summer from a tour company in Halifax. 

"It was a real low-risk option from a cost perspective. So we thought, 'Hey, why not? Let's try some new things,'" said Parsons.

The city always anticipated the train would ride the rails right into the red.

Thinking ridership revenue wouldn't entirely cover the rental fee, fuel costs, and salaries for three drivers, Parsons said, the city was initially prepared to spend between $5,000 and $25,000 to bring the train to Corner Brook.

Now, "who knows? It might end up breaking even," he said.

Even if it doesn't, the city is happy with how things have turned out.

"I think that this is well worth it," Parsons said. "If you talk to businesses in the downtown, and the tourism industry, I don't think you'll see any quibbles about that. From an economic development standpoint, it's a definite winner."

The city is already brainstorming how to bring the train back for the summer of 2020, keeping its options open at this point as to whether it would lease or outright buy.

The street train has given Mayor Jim Parsons lots to smile about. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

In the meantime, the train runs daily for the rest of the summer in the city.

The plan was to cut it back to weekends and cruise ship days in the fall, but given the train's success, combined with the bulk of Corner Brook's busiest-ever cruise ship season ahead, the city is considering keeping it on a daily run.

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Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is the producer and host of Atlantic Voice, a CBC Radio 1 show showcasing documentaries and storytelling from the east coast. She is based out of CBC Corner Brook.