Hawaiian Railway Society

February, 2009

Robert Yatchmenoff has been a huge rail advocate for the past three decades. But it’s not the kind of rail you might think, if you’ve been following the latest headlines.

Yatchmenoff has been a member of the Hawaiian Railway Society since 1975 and became the president of the group’s board of directors in 1993. The Hawaiian Railway Society is an educational, 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that strives to preserve Hawaii’s rich railroading history, which dates back to the late 1800s. When sugar was king, 47 plantations in Hawaii had private railway systems, each with its own locomotives used for hauling cane. Today, the Hawaiian Railway, located in Ewa, takes visitors back in time with two weekly train rides that offer breathtaking views of Oahu’s Leeward Coast.

Despite limited funding and resources, Yatchmenoff and some 300 other railroad buffs have restored three vintage diesel locomotives and about 6.5 miles of track, a portion of which is designated on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

“Even though we’re a nonprofit, we’ve been able to keep the society running since 1971 because we know how to stick to the basics,” says Yatchmenoff. The organization’s success, he adds, boils down to two simple fundamentals: keeping a strict budget and staying committed to preserving a very special part of Old Hawaii. He also credits the organization’s five paid staff members and about a dozen volunteers with keeping the operation going.

The majority of the Hawaiian Railway Society’s funding comes from its weekly train rides, chartered student tours, memorabilia sales and donations. Yatchmenoff says 80 percent of visitors are kamaaina, many of whom live in the Ewa area and had never heard about the train before (talk about a niche market). However, in this case, having a product that’s so unique actually serves the Railway Society well — it dominates the market.

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Shara Enay