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Holiday Express reaches end of line

Owners have hope for Sugar Cane Train

Children reach their hands out of the windows of the Holiday Express in excitement over Santa’s Christmas carols and fake snow. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

KAANAPALI — Steam billowed, the rail wheels started to turn and the nostalgic air whistle echoed into the night as the “Holiday Express” chugged down the tracks from Puukolii Station, possibly for the very last time on the Valley Isle.

The Christmas-themed Sugar Cane Train made its final 4-mile round trip of the year Monday, traveling to Kualapa Loop and back, after the owners were unable to reach an agreement with Kaanapali Land Management over the future of the steam locomotive.

“We bought it (in 2014) to preserve it for the community, and I didn’t know how much love and how many great memories people have had in this until we bought it,” co-owner Todd Domeck said before the train rides. “So now it’s even more disappointing.”

Decorated in glittering red, green and blue lights, the iconic Sugar Cane Train operated nightly throughout the Christmas season, but has now reached the end of the tracks.

While crowds lined the sidewalk by the railroad Monday night for both the 6 and 7:30 p.m. rides, activities were halted a day early because there were no reservations booked for Tuesday.

Co-owner Craig Hill (right) rings a brass bell while Todd Domeck smiles on the steps of the Sugar Cane Train on Monday night. The Holiday Express made what might have been its final run Monday night, though the owners are hopeful about reviving the train. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

Co-owner Craig Hill, who was seen walking through the railway cars, ringing a handheld train bell and mingling with passengers, said that “they are still very, very hopeful” about saving the historic train.

The lease to conduct the Sugar Cane Train expired Tuesday evening, and “we don’t have permission to run the train anymore after that, and no future contract,” Domeck said.

However, the owners have a meeting planned with Kaanapali Land Management on Jan. 8 to “take another shot” at securing a new deal, and a follow-up with the Mayor’s Office.

“Looks like it might need to be the county or Lahaina wanting to keep it here, so we don’t know what the future looks like,” Domeck said. “We wanted to make it a place where people could have celebrations, and graduation parties, and events, like it used to. So, pretty devastating.”

Domeck mentioned that his 5-year-old son had said that his dream is to save the Sugar Cane Train and wants to attend the next meeting with the landowners, which might be “a convincing tactic.”

Santa takes a photo with some passengers Monday night during what could be the Holiday Express’ final ride. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

Maui businessmen Hill and Domeck purchased the train in October 2014, and the “Holiday Express” began operations in 2016, providing Christmas-themed rides past former fields of sugar cane, where passengers were treated to classic holiday music, milk and cookies and knickknacks.

Hill and Domeck said they usually ride the train a couple times a week in December to help everyone get settled and to talk about the train’s history, and now, its future.

“You know, that’s why we bought it, to continue this history,” Domeck said. “We spent the last five years getting the land uses and purchase agreements into place. I don’t mind the hard work, but we kind of feel like we let the community down.”

Since A.W. “Mac” McKelvey founded the Lahaina Kaanapali Pacific Railroad in 1969, more than 5 million tourists and locals have ridden the train, making it one of West Maui’s most popular attractions until the train’s final public run on Aug. 1, 2014.

“The final decision is up to the train operators,” Stephen Lovelette, chief executive officer and chief financial officer at Kaanapali Land, said Monday via phone. “We’ve provided them with terms and conditions, which has been negotiated these past couple years. I’m still willing to talk to them.”

Lovelette, who is also president at JMB Financial Advisors LLC based in Chicago, added that “Craig and Todd are good guys, we’ve had a great relationship with them, you know, but I think the ball is in their court.”

Kaanapali Land owns the parcels used by the train, not JMB, although some individuals at JMB Realty Corp. in Chicago are owners of Kaanapali Land.

Earlier this month, Maui County spokesman Brian Perry told The Maui News that Mayor Michael Victorino had written a letter of support for the Holiday Express to Lovelette.

Perry said that the mayor asked Lovelette to allow the Sugar Cane Train to operate in December for what might be the last time, explaining how the train is loved by local and visitor communities, to which Lovelette agreed.

On Monday night, families and their keiki gathered by the train tracks to board the Holiday Express, where they were greeted by elves with cookies and candy canes.

And, of course, there was a pit stop at Santa’s workshop, where he serenaded the passengers with personalized Christmas carols, and even boarded the train to meet the children.

While there were some first-time riders, many families were continuing an ongoing Christmas tradition.

After the Holiday Express pulled into Puukolii Station, conductor John Backus and chief mechanical officer JD Marzec blew the train whistle as a “see you later.”

“I’m hoping that’s not the last ride,” said Backus, who has been a Sugar Cane Train driver for two years. “It’s been really fun.”

While there’s no guaranteed contract in the future, the co-owners still encourage the community to sign a petition to keep the sugar cane locomotive in Lahaina, rather than being shipped to the Mainland, and to “show your support and love for the train.”

The petition can be found at thepetitionsite.com/133/066/764/tell-maui-county-that-you-want-to-keep-the-sugar-cane-train-in-lahaina/.

Online signatures have almost reached 1,000 while hard copy signatures have rounded out to 4,000, Domeck said.

For more information about the train, how to donate and the petition, visit sugarcanetrain.com.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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