Saturday, May 3, 2014

Indiana Weekend wins SPJ award for radio documentary

A segment from Indiana Weekend, our weekly show on Indiana Public Radio, just won a Society of Professional Journalists award for best radio documentary. Here's a look at the radio (and podcast), a video and a newspaper writeup on the story about a man selling his private tourism railroad.


For Sale: One railroad – dreams included
By John Strauss, August 2013

A Knightsville, Ind., man who led excursion train rides through the Henry County countryside for 27 years has parked his locomotive and is selling the business. Times are difficult, he says, but the wonder of railroading is still there for whoever takes over next.
Tom Allison said a continued poor economy has sapped his Carthage-Knightstown-Shirley Railroad of riders. He closed at the end of August rather than offer his traditional fall events.

“We’re gonna miss ‘em,” Allison said of his patrons. “We hope they’ll miss us.  If somebody has the time to get hold of this and hang on to it for a few years until the economy turns around, it is a beautiful little tourist attraction for the central Indiana area.”

At age 79, the one-time suburban Indianapolis firefighter said he’s no longer interested in keeping up the heavy schedule of maintenance and other chores needed to keep the business on track.

But he remains the plainspoken, tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy you would expect to be running, almost single-handed, a railroad out in the country.

“We do rely to a heavy extent on people with like interests who volunteer their time to help us. We run on five miles of real estate and track that we own. The buildings on both ends are taxpaying real estate that we own.”

The CKS line, which uses GE switch engines traveling at about 10 mph between Knightstown and Carthage, recalls an earlier, more sedate pace.

“It’s a totally different experience, and for those of us who are old enough to remember, this is how you used to travel,” Allison said.

He got involved with railroad tourism as a member of the Indiana Railway Museum in French Lick for more than a decade. His wife, Marion, is from that area. Then the CKS line became available in the mid 1980s.

“We looked at it long and hard, kicked dirt and spit for about a year, and got into it.”

A normal train for him is three cars. But on one recent Saturday a couple of weeks before he closed, there were only enough people, about 20, to require one car. Then there’s the upkeep. Allison and his volunteers do it all.

“The biggest problem is if you don’t have sufficient cash flow, you don’t have the money to do what needs to be done to maintain what you have,” he said.

This is the fourth year of an economy he calls “at best, questionable.”

“We’re looking down the road and people talk about the light at the end of the tunnel. We haven’t found the tunnel yet.  Unfortunately, at my age which is 79, I can’t wait around for things to change that long.”

How do you sell a railroad? This one will cost about $1.25 million, Allison said. Plenty of train buffs came by to take photos as the CKS made its final runs, often posting themselves at crossings to get a good shot. But there were no buyout offers by the time he closed.

“If we’re not successful in finding somebody that is capable of taking it over financially and physically, it will be pieced out” – meaning the track, cars and other equipment sold.

“We hate to even think of that, because you can’t put that back together once you break it up.”

Someone who wants to buy the business would get more than just steel and rolling stock, he said. 

There’s a mystique to railroading that begins in childhood.           

“Every little boy has a model train. The only difference is that this is bigger than the others,” he said.

“The whistle blows, the bells ring, your mind goes off into the distance along with the train itself.”

John Strauss teaches journalism at Ball State University and is host of the “Indiana Weekend” show on Indiana Public Radio:, from which this story is adapted.

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