Council: Meet TCEQ mandates, seek new 503 funds
By Ken Stickney
The Port Arthur City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to address contaminated soil beneath the Kansas City Southern Locomotive 503, a decision that will give interested local groups time to make their own efforts to keep the engine in this city.
But one interested preservationist suggested after the meeting that the decision will delay, not halt, the engine’s eventual demise.
The old steam locomotive, about a century old, was given to Port Arthur by the Kansas City Southern six decades ago for an historical display. Since then, it has mostly been a fixture at Bryan Park.
The locomotive became imperiled after Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey, when flooding exacerbated the threat of asbestos leaks and other public health concerns. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality gave the city 180 days — the original deadline would have fallen on Tuesday — to address problems that included asbestos in the locomotive, which has deteriorated for years, and affected soil beneath the engine. It was later determined that the engine also has problems related to lead paint.
Destined for demolition
The engine appeared destined for demolition as recently as mid-February, after companies hired by the city government addressed the asbestos problem and prepared to demolish the engine for possible sale as scrap metal.
That was when Jason Sobczynski of Kentucky-based Next Generation Rail Services drove to Port Arthur from his current train reclamation project in Grapevine, Texas, and inspected the 503. Sobczynski said the engine was in better-than-expected condition, but needs to be moved from its current location, where it is exposed to salt air and other harsh elements, and moved elsewhere.
At Sobczynski’s request, the scrapping company delayed its work while Sobczynski raised funds through an online GoFundMe account and sought better options for the locomotive’s future. One possible plan: Move the train for repair and storage and then ship it to a site in Orlando, Florida, where the engine would become operational again.
Hearing: Citizens say no
But that plan — moving the 503 elsewhere — did not meet with the approval of council members and citizens who spoke out Tuesday.
Former council member John Beard suggested the council should seek a referendum for citizens to vote on disposing of the locomotive, which has been displayed in Port Arthur, historically a railroad town, since 1957.
“How do you place a value on history, memories, on culture?” he asked. The engine’s value, he said, is “intrinsic” and could not be accounted for in dollars and cents.
He suggested that sending the train out of Port Arthur was like “selling” one’s children “into bondage.”
Council members suggested that the locomotive, which in its heyday operated out of state for a subsidiary of the Kansas City Southern, had historical ties to Port Arthur at least dating back to 1957, when KCS donated it to this city for display.
The lone council support for letting out-of-state concerns purchase, refurbish and make operational the locomotive elsewhere came from Councilwoman Charlotte Moses, who missed the meeting for family concerns.
She sent a prepared statement that said the city “was not in position to return (Locomotive No. 503) to the state of excellence it deserves.”
She said supporting city infrastructure and repairing streets was more important and to spend money to halfway preserve the locomotive would be “shameful.”
Citizens get their chance
Council members initially weighed three options: demolishing the engine as a public safety threat, sending it to a third party that could properly restore it or spending the money, perhaps $200,000, to fully upgrade the locomotive.
Their vote was to meet the TCEQ mandates to address the contaminated ground beneath the engine — the estimated cost would be $45,000 — by an amended deadline of April 20.
That would give Beard, who offered to lead citizen efforts to raise money for the train, and other interested Port Arthur groups time to get organized.
Outside the meeting, Sobczynski, whose online GoFundMe account had generated $67,000 from more than 1,200 train enthusiasts around the country, said he would wait perhaps a month or two to see what the City Council does next. The funds he has raised are dedicated to the plan to move the locomotive to Florida.
But he repeated what he told council members: The locomotive would deteriorate further unless it was encased in a climate-controlled environment or unless it was made operational, which would happen in Florida.
“Keeping it here is condemning it to the elements,” he said, suggesting the 503 might “deteriorate to the point where it will be beyond being made useful again.”