SURREY — When David Penn passed away in the summer of 2012, some thought it was also the end of the line for one of Surrey’s most beloved institutions, the Bear Creek Park Train. After all, Penn had been the public face, chief engineer and spiritual leader almost since the little locomotive’s first foray through the leased Bear Creek forest some 16 years earlier. How could one go on without the other?
Yet here we are, more than three years later, and the crowds keep coming, the train keeps chugging and the smiles never stop, particularly at Halloween, when it becomes the child-friendly “Pumpkin Express” in the daytime and the terrifying “Scream Train” at night.
As it turns out, one of Penn’s greatest strengths was the team, and the wife, behind him.
“We’ve been here 19 years,” said Linda Penn, who took over the operation when husband David could no longer continue and is now, undeniably, the train’s driving force.
“David (had) a form of leukemia and was ill for a long time and just didn’t let anybody know. But he was doing what he loved. He loved being here. He loved the kids.”
He loved putting on special events and creating something, she added.
“But while he was the figurehead, I’ve been with him all along. I did a lot in the background from the very start. My role was just not as publicly obvious as his. That’s why I was able to take this over… because I’d done a lot of it anyway.”
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Truth is, though, neither David nor Linda set out to be railroad barons. He was involved in real estate, she was a flight attendant, and neither had choo-choo experience. Indeed, if not for a mysterious set of circumstances, their involvement, and the makeup of the train itself, would have been very different.
“A fellow by the name of Kevin brought the train over from England in 1996,” Linda explained. “That guy had a silver tongue. He talked the city into allowing him to run the train in one of their parks. It was one of the very first public-private ventures.
“David got involved because he loved putting on events. He read about it in the papers and came out to talk to Kevin.
“But Kevin wasn’t a good businessman and didn’t know a lot about trains. David helped organize a lot of things for him and we took out a big loan to assist him and ended up with a 50-per-cent shareholder position because of that.”
But by the end of the year, everything had changed. Flight attendant Linda had given the curious Brit an airline guest pass on the premise he wanted to visit his family in England. He was never heard from again.
It was bad news for the Penns, who were now forced to deal with the practical and financial mess “Kevin” had left behind. But it was great news for the Bear Creek Park Train that would eventually flourish under their watch.
Today, it’s people like Eero Kuitunen that help ensure the train is what it’s always been. Joining the team four years ago as David Penn fell ill, Kuitunen brought with him 38 years of experience at Via Rail, where he retired as director of maintenance for Western Canada. He does not take his new gig lightly.
“We run just like a regular railway – signals, the maintenance, the horn, the way it operates,” he said. “You have to have a ticket (a train license) to drive this train. We get inspected regularly and we follow BC Safety Authority sanctions.”
Kuitunen, who makes a long daily commute to Bear Creek from his home in Chilliwack, does not hide his love for all things locomotive.
“Being around trains, children and families, that’s my shtick,” he said. “I really believe the train here is an important part of the Bear Creek fabric. Even people who don’t take the train, I’m getting to know. They’re always promoting the train. They say they love the sound and the look.
“I’m here until they fire me,” he added with a laugh.
Rosa Lester has been working the facility for nine years and can’t see herself doing anything else. A Telus service agent in her former life, she often plays the role of cashier or customer service person. She does the payroll and organizes the big events and volunteers. In short, she does a ton. And she has very definite reasons for it.
“This place is magical for children. I do it to see the children smile. One thing I keep hearing is that ‘I used to come here as a kid and now I come here with my own kids.’ It’s all about the kids.”
And her thoughts on the Halloween Scream Train?
“I’ve been here nine years and I’ll still scream when I take that train,” Lester said.
But there are, perhaps, changes afoot.
“I had a serious physical condition this year, and I just don’t have the energy that I once had,” Linda said. “I’m not in the technology age. I’m 66 years old. I find it challenging now.
“Because we’re a business, we’ve never gotten support in the form of donations, so it’s always been a delicate balance between profit and fairness.
“We’ve always done what we could with what we had, but I think this could be so much more. It’s time for younger ideas to take over and younger bodies to help here.”
Whether 2016 ushers in a new era at the Bear Creek Park Train or not, one thing is certain: There’s still time to experience the Halloween train that David and Linda, along with Eero and Rosa and a host of volunteers, have spent a couple decades building. For details, call 604-501-1232 or visit Bctrains.com.