Jack Haley, shortline and dinner train entrepreneur, dies

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OMAHA, Neb. — Jack Haley, the founder of two shortline railroads and a pioneer of dinner trains, died Saturday. He was 75.

Haley had two passions: railroading and aviation. He began his railroad career in 1952 as a section hand for Union Pacific. He held positions as brakeman and conductor until 1958, then began a 20-year Air Force career. In 1984, Haley returned to railroading when he founded the Cedar Valley Railroad, a 105-mile short line that operated former Illinois Central track between Waterloo, Iowa, and Albert Lea, Minn.

While working at the company’s Osage, Iowa, offices, Haley became a regular customer at a local supper club, Big Don’s. In chats with Walt Vining, Big Dons’ proprietor, Haley proposed putting a restaurant on wheels. In summer 1985, the Star Clipper Dinner Train began operations with a pair of F7s and a trio of refurbished passenger cars.

On Dec. 24, 1985, Haley expanded his empire greatly by acquiring 681 additional route-miles from Illinois Central between Chicago and Sioux City, Iowa, plus connecting branches. The new railroad launched under the name Chicago Central & Pacific.

Haley’s affiliation with the railroad would be short-lived, however. When Chicago Central failed to make timely payments on its debt to General Electric Credit Corp., the company took a close look at operations. It found costs were consistently exceeding revenues. Haley agreed to leave Chicago Central on Sept. 1, 1987. Twelve years later, IC bought the line back, and it’s now part of Canadian National’s empire.

The Star Clipper dinner train empire continued to expand, with operations opening in Michigan, Florida, and Rhode Island. Haley’s early experiments with such trains created the business model that dinner trains across the country now employ.
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