Back on track: All aboard the Sugar Cane Train

Maui Sugar Cane Train’s Holiday Express returned Friday; full schedule of runs expected to depart in May

The Sugar Cane Train’s Holiday Express is shown in December 2017. The seasonal treat began departures Friday and regular trips on the Lahaina landmark could start in May. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The iconic Maui Sugar Cane Train may return permanently with regular runs starting in May, a co-owner said Friday.

Over the past few years, the locomotive has carried passengers for private events and The Holiday Express, which began Friday night in Kaanapali. Next year’s reopening will mark the first regular trips since the train made its final public run on Aug. 1, 2014.

“We’re very excited, but it took a lot longer than expected,” co-owner and Lahaina businessman Todd Domeck said.

Domeck said a deal with the majority landowner still needs to be finalized and noted that the train is “unlikely” to travel to the Lahaina Station. The Holiday Express currently travels 4 miles to and from the Puukolii and Kaanapali stations.

Domeck, owner of Maui Pineapple Tour in Haliimaile and zipline companies in Oahu, Florida and Texas, bought the train with Napili businessman Craig Hill in October 2014. Hill owns Maui Concierge Services and started and sold the company that is now Expedia.

Santa greets passengers on the Sugar Cane Train Holiday Express last year. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The business partners plan to focus on private and public events, including weddings, corporate functions, birthday parties and holidays, Domeck said. Easter, Halloween and other holidays could be incorporated into the train’s theme, he added.

“A famous cartoon train might come to Hawaii too,” he said.

While the owners hope to restart the 49-year-old attraction in six months, reopening the train has been in the works since 2015.

The duo bought the train from former owners Robert and Kim Butler of Nebraska days before it was removed and sold to another buyer. Initial plans called for extensive renovations and fundraisers to help with the costs to repair and refurbish the train cars.

In 2016, the new owners eventually revived the train in time for the holidays and had tentative plans to permanently reopen the train the following year. The plans called for spending about $6 million on rebuilding the railroad, fixing the trains and adding restaurants, retail and other activities at each of the train’s three stations.

The Sugar Cane Train Holiday Express pulls into the station last year. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Domeck declined to discuss the delays and emphasized that “the main thing is we will be up and running.” He said the business partners are looking at having a coffee and ice cream shop at the Puukolii Station, but they probably will not pursue the restaurant, which would have been in Lahaina.

He added that the Lahaina Station is being used as an office, and he does not have any plans for it yet.

The old Lahaina Kaanapali & Pacific Railroad originally closed due to mounting operational losses and a string of derailments. In the mid-1990s, the railroad was raking in $10 million to $12 million and carrying 4,000 passengers a day.

By the time it closed, workers said the train saw less than 4,000 passengers a month.

Domeck said he’s looking forward to the return of the old sugar cane train and hopes to incorporate its history and evolution over the years. He said he hopes to tell the train’s story in an “entertaining way” and highlight its impact.

“We know the business didn’t survive before so we have to do some things differently,” Domeck said. “They focused on operating a railroad, which is great but what we’re seeing around the country is that’s not enough anymore. You need to have things that keep the train interesting for families. Way back in the day we used to have sugar cane, but now it’s all houses right up against the railroad track. We’re going to rebuild that experience and make it interesting for everyone.”

As the train prepares for its permanent return next year, The Holiday Express has been a success for the third straight year.

About 3,000 tickets had been sold before Friday night’s first run and the operation has enjoyed 40 percent growth from last year, Domeck said. Staff has doubled to six workers, who are working with friends and family to continually improve the experience.

Both steam locomotives, Anaka and Myrtle, which were built in Pittsburgh in 1943, also are running. Myrtle had been decommissioned for over four years, but it was fully refurbished and inspected by the Federal Railroad Administration in late October, Domeck said.

“Sales are great,” he said. “We’re doing some new things with more lights and more games to play.”

The 4-mile round-trip journey through West Maui includes milk and cookies and a brief stop to pick up Santa. The train runs twice a night, at 6:30 and 8, until Dec. 31.

Tickets are $35, and children ages 2 and younger ride free. Premium tickets are $50, which includes a gift for kids and a free printed photo with Santa.

A kamaaina discount of 10 percent also is offered with a valid Hawaii ID at check-in.

The train is located at the corner of Puukolii Road and Honoapiilani Highway, across the street from Airport Beach. Guests are asked to check in 45 minutes prior to their trip and carpool when possible due to limited parking at the station.

For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.sugarcanetrain.com or call 667-6851.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.