EN ROUTE TO VERSAILLES — With a slight jolt, the shiny red R.J. Corman engine pulled out of the station behind Rupp Arena and the Lexington Dinner Train was on its way.
Under the hand of engineer Brian Crowe, the inaugural run of the train to Versailles got off to a smooth start. (His mother Paula Crowe, who has worked on the Bardstown train for 25 years, was overseeing the Lexington lunch launch.)
"Very nice to have you on our train," Chef Gil Logan personally greeted everyone aboard. "You're going to be a part of history, did you know?"
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Mrs. C.R. (Josephine) Smith of Winchester brought her grown daughters, Lynn Roberts and Debbie Hoffman, and daughter-in-law Suzy Smith, just for the occasion.
"I'd heard about the train in Bardstown and never been," Josephine Smith said.
For some it was more unexpected: Jamie Franklin brought her husband, Mike, to celebrate his 57th birthday.
"This was a great surprise," Mike Franklin, of Lexington, said.
Everybody was eager to try the signature "chocolate choo-choo," a chocolate train engine filled with Chantilly cream and dark chocolate mousse on a chocolate raspberry track.
For lunch on Wednesday, all 42 seats of the "Eisenhower car" were filled, many with customers who paid about $70 a ticket.
The renovated dinner car, which has been part of the popular Bardstown-based "My Old Kentucky Dinner Train," is named for the 34th president because it was part of the funeral train that carried his body from Washington, D.C., to Abilene, Kan., in 1969.
The Lexington train is rolling but it's still under a cloud: R.J. Corman and the Lexington Center Corp. have sued each other in federal and state courts over the station. Neither side was commenting Wednesday on whether the launch of the train will make any difference.
R.J. Corman, the Nicholasville-based railroad company, added the Lexington meal excursion to its lineup as a way to be part of the growing excitement in downtown Lexington, said Noel Rush, R.J. Corman vice president.
"There's a lot going on in Lexington, with Rupp and all that, and this is our way of contributing to the vitality."
As the train pulled out of the lot behind Rupp, the scenery was a little ... well, less than scenic. Unless you enjoy watching cement mixers. But the view improved as the train passed behind historic Calumet and into lush green horse farm country.
All along the first run, "rail fans" waited at railroad crossings to get photos, a sign of continued public interest in trains.
Will it actually make money?
"There was never that expectation," Rush admitted. "But we hope it's a cool thing for Lexington to have, and if it gets to be 'so cool,' we can add another car."
The second car, which is being refurbished, will seat 60, giving the train total capacity of about 100. And a club car can accommodate private parties.
Corman has big plans, including adult and children's mystery trains, and a "Polar Express" at Christmastime with Santa, Rush said.
Because the line goes right behind Keeneland, it would be simple to add a spur to the track, he said. And they hope to partner with distilleries to offer bourbon tastings.
Right now, lunch and dinner Wednesday through Saturday are planned but the schedule may be adjusted as demand warrants.
Wednesday night's first dinner train, which goes for $85 a ticket, was sold out, as are the dinner excursions for Friday and Saturday. The lunch trip took about two hours but dinner will be more leisurely, lasting about three hours. Tickets can be booked online at lexingtondinnertrain.com.
"We'll have to see how people take to this," Rush said. "How many people are going to take a two-hour lunch? But I think for special occasions, we may be over-subscribed."