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Thursday, February 23, 2012

All aboard: Hawaiian Railway gives people a ride through history on restored locomotives and tracks

By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi, Honolulu Star-Bulletin

February 20, 2012

When Jeff Livingston went home for the very first time, a Lionel train set was waiting for him — a “welcome” gift for the newborn baby from his proud father. Over the years, Livingston’s parents, relatives and family friends augmented his collection, and as that grew, so did his interest in trains.

One of his favorite childhood outings was going with his dad to Cleveland Union Terminal, 15 miles from their house, to observe the arrivals and departures of passenger trains.

“I never got tired of watching those behemoths,” said Livingston, historian for the Hawaiian Railway Society. “I was awestruck by the size and sound of the steam locomotives, and the speed and power of the electric locomotives. I dreamed of going to places I’d never been in trains. I guess that part has never changed; I ride trains whenever and wherever I can. Last year in Germany I rode a Royal Bavarian State Railways train pulled by a gorgeous steam locomotive.”

When Livingston moved from Ohio to Hawaii in 1990 and began studying military railways, he became acquainted with Bob Paoa, who was HRS’ historian at the time.



» Address: 91-1001 Renton Road, Ewa Beach, Oahu

» Rides: 1 and 3 p.m. every Sunday (open year-round except Dec. 24 and 25). The ticket office and gift shop open at 11:30 a.m.

» Price: $12 for adults, $8 for seniors (62 and older) and children (2 through 12). Children under 2 are free. Parlor Car No. 64, which seats 14, is added to the train on the second Sunday of every month. Reservations are required for seating in this car. Cost is $25 per person. Only cash and checks are accepted for all fares.

» Phone: 681-5461

» Email:

» Website:

» Notes: Seating for tours is on a first-come, first-served basis (maximum capacity is 150). The train, including Parlor Car No. 64, is available for charters. Call for rates.

Passengers are welcome to take food and beverages on board and to use the picnic area adjacent to the train station. With the purchase of a ride, this area also can be reserved for private functions at no charge.

On view at the open-air museum next to the station are vintage freight cars and steam engines, including the 12-ton Kauila No. 6, which, dating back to 1889, was the first locomotive bought and used by OR&L.

Tax-deductible memberships in the Hawaiian Railway Society start at $25 ($10 for children). Checks or money orders can be made out to the Hawaiian Railway Society and mailed to P.O. Box 60369, Ewa, HI 96706.

“Bob is a great mentor and friend,” Livingston said. “He encouraged me and shared all the information he had not only about Hawaii’s military railroads, but its plantation railroads and ‘common carriers’ — passenger and freight trains. I became HRS’ historian in 2009, but Bob continues to be active in our research efforts as historian emeritus.”

HRS WAS FOUNDED on Oct. 13, 1971, as the Hawaii Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society (its name was changed to Hawaiian Railway Society two years later to emphasize its local ties). An educational, nonprofit organization dedicated to researching, preserving and sharing Hawaii’s train history, it maintains and operates the only historic railroad on Oahu.

One of HRS’ major accomplishments was the restoration of half of a 12-mile track from Ewa to Nanakuli that was formerly used by Oahu Railway & Land Co., a common carrier founded by renowned entrepreneur Ben Dillingham. (OR&L officially opened on Nov. 16, 1889, King Kalakaua’s 53rd birthday, and remained in business until 1947.)

That track, the only remaining portion of OR&L’s main line, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Dec. 1, 1975. HRS began restoring it three years later and completed the first phase (6.5 miles) in 2002. Plans call for about three more miles of the track to be restored when time and funding permit.

On Sunday afternoons, passengers gather for narrated 90-minute rides on the restored track offered by Hawaiian Railway, the operating arm of HRS. Two 45-ton ex-Navy diesel locomotives take turns pulling six ex-Army flatcars that were rebuilt to accommodate passengers. All the equipment dates back to the 1940s.

The train chugs along at a leisurely 15 miles per hour, making a stop at Kahe Point where spectacular views of Oahu’s Leeward coast are revealed. “We’ve had old folks on board who grew up on Ewa sugar plantations and remember riding this route,” Livingston said. “During World War II, soldiers also rode OR&L’s trains, so the ride also brings back fond memories for many veterans.”

After the war, virtually all the railroads in the islands were dismantled to make way for paved roads for cars, buses and trucks.

Hawaiian Railway’s track is a precious relic that needs constant maintenance. Revenues generated from ticket sales enable HRS to do that and continue its preservation work.

Thus far the group has cosmetically restored three steam locomotives dating back to 1889, 1890 and 1912. Thanks to its efforts, three diesel locomotives (one built in 1942 and two in 1944) are fully operational.

Volunteers — including mechanics, electricians, welders and pipe fitters — are restoring another 1944 diesel locomotive at HRS’ train yard in Ewa. “Most of them are HRS members, but that’s not a requirement and we don’t only need skilled craftsmen,” Livingston said. “Anyone who has interest is welcome. Come out and remove one square foot of old paint and rust; it all adds up!”

Participants can expect to learn a lot about Hawaii’s fascinating railroad history. Livingston notes that agriculture (primarily sugar and pineapple) played an important role in the islands’ economic development, and that development could not have occurred without railroads. Industrial development also was closely tied to railroads.

“Hawaiian Railway is one of the last remaining vestiges of that chapter in Hawaiian history,” Livingston said. “When people ride our train, they’re riding back in time.”

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