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Holiday Express may be on its last tracks

Owners are trying to work out deal to run Lahaina train full time

Locomotive Myrtle, which has not been running for about five years, made her debut Friday night for the Lahaina Sugar Cane train’s “Holiday Express.” CHRIS NORBERG photo

The Sugar Cane Train’s “Holiday Express” may reach the end of the line after this year with the owners saying they currently are unable to secure a deal from a major landowner to keep the train running.

Train co-owner and Lahaina businessman Todd Domeck said that for several years they have been trying to work out a lease or purchase agreement with a private landowner in order to run the train full- time.

The train owners were hopeful last holiday season that a deal could be reached and that the train would be operational full-time in May, but the deal fell through. No agreement could be reached on land purchase or lease terms.

The owners currently are soliciting help from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino and could turn to the Maui County Council, as well. Domeck has set up a petition, which can be found on the Lahaina Sugar Cane Train website at www.thepetitionsite.com, to garner public support.

“We just want to keep it there (in Lahaina) and preserve it as part of history,” said Domeck, who along with Maui businessman Craig Hill, bought the train in October 2014, saving it from being moved off island.

Manning the steam engine Anaka, Brian Davies brings the Sugar Cane Train’s Holiday Express to a stop at Kaanapali Station during a run last year. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

In 2016, the “Holiday Express” was born with the train running Christmas-themed rides, complete with Santa, milk and cookies and gifts. It has continued during the holidays ever since.

Domeck said Victorino sent a letter to the landowner seeking permission to run the train for the holiday season, which was successful. The Holiday Express began Friday and runs through Dec. 31.

“For us, it’s really important to keep this going. . . . We don’t believe we are going to make a deal unless the county can step in,” Domeck said of the future for the train.

Maui County Communications Director Brian Perry said Victorino wrote a letter of support for the holiday train to Stephen Lovelette of JMB Realty Corp. in Chicago earlier this year.

The mayor asked Lovelette to allow the tradition to continue this year and talked about the special family event that has the support of the local and visitor communities, Perry said.

As far as what the mayor could do for the train going forward, Victorino indicated that he may not be able to do much more since the matter involves private land acquisition, which is outside his control, Perry said.

Reached Tuesday night on the Mainland, Lovelette said his company will continue to negotiate and acknowledged that negotiations have gone on a for a while.

“We are still talking,” he added.

He explained that Kaanapali Land owns the parcels used by the train and not JMB, although individuals at JMB are owners of Kaanapali Land.

Lovelette is president at JMB Financial Advisors LLC based in Chicago. He also is chief executive officer and chief financial officer at Kaanapali Land, according to Bloomberg.

Domeck said that more than 10 million people have ridden the train, and that it has at least 5,000 fans on Facebook.

An Oahu man, who is now in his 20s, continues to come to Maui to ride the train. He has done so around 4,000 times since he was a young kid, Domeck said.

Future plans for the train include special events and operating the train year-round, as it did in the past.

Domeck said he was thrilled to see steam engine Myrtle operating on Friday, after a five-year hiatus. The train also has Anaka, another steam engine, and an unnamed diesel engine.

The Sugar Cane Train’s final public run was on Aug. 1, 2014. 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 his first son, Walker, was born around the time the train service closed in 2014. Growing up, Walker once offered a wish while in school for the Sugar Cane Train to be saved, his father said.

Domeck said he wants to keep a part of Lahaina history alive, and that is more important than its financial success. He and Hill lose money on the train every year, but they hope to somehow at least break even on the purchase.

Domeck operates a number of business on Maui and the Mainland, including Maui Pineapple Tour in Haliimaile, zip line companies on Oahu and in Florida and Texas and the Maui Pineapple Store on Front Street.

Hill owns Maui Concierge Services and started and sold the company that is now Expedia.

They both own The Steeple House at Kapalua.

The Holiday Express begins at Puukolii Station in Kaanapali with a 4-mile round trip with a brief stop to pick up Santa. The train runs nightly at 6 and 7:30.

Regular tickets are $35 and premium tickets are $50. The premium ticket includes a gift for the children and a free photo with Santa. There is also a 10 percent kamaaina discount.

For information, see www. sugarcanetrain.com.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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