North Pole Express 2013 – The Complete Report

I apologize for the long delay in getting this report on North Pole Express 2013 at the Florida Railroad Museum published.  Being a three weekend event in December 2013, it took a while for me to write and re-write this report.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

By now you had an enjoyable Christmas and a Happy New Year!  We just wrapped up the North Pole Express 2013 just before Christmas and I can say it was a big success.  We had an excellent turnout on all three weekends of the North Pole Express.

For me, this was my first time being a volunteer Car Host on the Florida Railroad Museum’s North Pole Express.  But first, here is the backstory to the preparations for the North Pole Express:

I was in Jacksonville over Thanksgiving weekend enjoying a short vacation and dinner with my nephew on Thanksgiving Day.  Fortunately, I had a great time but when I got word of the mandatory meeting for all volunteers working North Pole Express by way of the email I had to end up cutting my Jacksonville trip over Thanksgiving weekend short in order to attend the mandatory volunteer meeting which was held at the Parrish station right after our regular 2 PM train ride.  In fact, I left Jacksonville early in the morning (0700, that is) and took advantage of the light traffic on Interstates 95 and 4 as well as Orlando’s Central Florida Greenway (FL Toll 417) to Lakeland and onto FL 37 south to FL 62, and west on FL 62 to Parrish, US 301 and the Florida Railroad Museum.  In fact, I made it in time to treat myself to a 2 PM regular train ride using my free regular train ride member benefit.

Believe me, even though I was just a passenger coming for the ride, I got pressed into Car Host service when we did the Willow runaround.  But I did a great job.  Shortly after the train ride we had our North Pole Express meeting and I was taking notes on my BlackBerry.  Being my first North Pole Express, I was excited!

Now for the three weekend report of the North Pole Express, starting with the weekend of 5 to 8 December 2013.  You will notice that I did not work the Thursday run, only the Friday, Saturday and Sunday run of each North Pole Express weekend as you read through this blog entry.  So sit back, relax, and enjoy what transpired over the three weekends of the North Pole Express.

It was the first Friday afternoon of the North Pole Express, and I had to work at my day job in the morning.  Once everything was done, it was time to head south via the Sunshine Skyway and Interstate 275 south.  Once at the Parrish exit (Interstate 75’s Exit 229) head north to Willow to store my stuff for the next couple of days, then head with a fellow volunteer south to Parrish.

4 PM came, and crew briefing.  My assignment for Friday was the 6324 Baggage Car, but I was given a volunteer that would help me with the concession stand.  After all, we had a concession stand not only for passengers in the 6324 but those in the open air flat car had access to the 6324’s concession stand. Unlike those who were in the ACL 250 First Class Lounge Car, the passengers had to pay for anything in the concession stand.

I instructed the volunteer on how to run the concession stand, then it was time for me to be the Car Host.  Another important responsibility was the scanning of tickets using a hand held scanner as our passengers came on board.  Boarding time came for our first group, and I boarded the passengers.

Right after I boarded all my 6324 passengers I gave the mandatory safety briefing, and then we were on our way to the North Pole!  Within a minute after departure we had carolers come through my assigned car singing traditional Christmas carols!  Everyone was singing favorites such as Frosty the Snowman, Here Comes Santa Claus, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, Silent Night, and a few others as we were doing 10 mph (16 km/h) past Dickey Road and Milepost SW 858.0.

After a short while I pointed out Santa’s Workshop, which is actually Florida Power & Light’s Manatee Power Plant with the red aviation blinkers warning low flying aircraft in the distance.  Additionally, off to the south of the plant was a strobe blinker, which is the transmitter antenna for WWSB-TV Channel 40 (ABC 7), the ABC affiliate serving Bradenton and Sarasota (after all, WWSB’s transmitter facilities are in Parrish).

If you happen to fly on Southwest Airlines from Ft. Lauderdale to Tampa, more than likely you may have seen the Florida Railroad Museum’s Willow maintenance facility from the air.  I flew Southwest into Tampa coming back from Ft. Lauderdale over Labor Day weekend in 2013 and I saw Willow from the air as we were on final approach into Tampa International Airport.

Right after passing Santa’s Workshop we were approaching the North Pole!  It was time to have all the passengers remain in their seats until the train came to a stop at the station; I reminded all the passengers that they had to take all their valuables and personal belongings with them.  Once we came to a stop at the station my Car Host duties were straightforward:  Assist passengers in getting off the train.

As soon as the last passenger was off the train it was a quick check of the restrooms to see if anyone was in there.  Then I made a radio call to the conductor:  6324 is secured.  As we were getting ready to head back to Parrish to take on our second group, I headed to the ACL 250 car along with the rest of the crew for dinner as we had to have our dinner on board the train.  During the crew briefing from earlier, all of us crew members had to select our dinner preference; I ended up having the chicken tenders as it was basically all there was on the menu that I could have to eat.

I had a leisurely dinner with the crew and Parrish came up too quickly.  I had to return to the 6324 to board our next group of passengers.  Make sure that passengers boarded the train safely, scan the tickets, give the safety briefing, and be on our way.

Once we got to the North Pole we detrained our second group and it was time for our first group to come back on board for the trip back to Parrish.  It was simple:  Make sure the passengers were seated and once on our way south the carolers came through once more.

Back in Parrish we detrained our first group of passengers, assisting them down the steps as needed.  After the last passenger got off then it was time for a restroom check as well as a quick clean of the 6324.  In due time we headed back to the North Pole to collect our second group of passengers and do the song and dance that we did with the first group.

By the time we got back to Parrish we detrained our second and last group of passengers for the evening.  Then it was time to close up the concession stand and give the 6324 a cleaning and trash pickup, especially the mint wrappers from the mints I distributed.

Once all was said and done, it was about 10:30 PM when we headed back to Willow for the night.  Once at Willow climb into the crew bunk, unwind, turn on my laptop and try to watch 10 News (WTSP-TV) via their website using my BlackBerry as the internet connection (and watch the Internet usage on my BlackBerry – streaming video can use up your data allotment!), then drift off to sleep thinking about the next day.

Saturday morning came, and I took a shower to clean myself up for the day ahead.  I went to a nearby restaurant in Sun City Center for breakfast, then headed back to the crew bunk to work on my laptop a little more.  By that time my fellow crew member departed as he had a considerable distance to head home as he only worked Thursday and Friday.  Later on in the day I rode with another crew member down to Parrish in preparation for the Saturday ride.

4 PM crew briefing came, and my assignment for that evening was the SAL 821 car.  Do the same song and dance as yesterday:  Get the passengers on board by checking tickets and do the mandatory safety briefing once all my passengers are on board.  But before I could load the passengers, the SAL 821 car is the Excursion Class, which meant everyone got a free mini-bottle of water which had to be put on the seats prior to boarding.

Right after all my passengers were boarded on the SAL 821 I gave the mandatory safety briefing and – at 5:30 PM – we departed on time.  After all, any train at the Florida Railroad Museum departs on time, and on time we must; this isn’t Amtrak you know.

On board I look over the safety of all of my passengers to be sure that the safety rules are being obeyed.  In an open air car such as the SAL 821, I make sure that everyone does not put their hands outside the windows, period.  In a short while the carolers come in to the SAL 821 to entertain us.

Once we pass Santa’s Workshop we arrive at the North Pole.  I inform the passengers that they have to remain seated until the train comes to a complete stop among other things.  Once we’re stopped I open the vestibule trap door and assist in helping our passengers depart the train so that they can take in the festivities at the North Pole.  Once the last passenger is off the train I make a quick check of the car to make sure that no one is on board, then it’s over to the ACL 250 car (our First Class car) for dinner.

We made our way back to Parrish and in plenty of time to restock the SAL 821 and board our next group of passengers.  It’s the same thing as before:  Assist passengers up the steep steps, show them where they need to go, give the safety briefing and – at 7 PM – we’re on our way to the North Pole!

It’s basically the same thing as the 5:30 PM run:  Christmas carolers, talk to the passengers, and show them Santa’s Workshop.  In due time we arrive at the North Pole with our second group and after the train is safely stopped I assist our group down the steep steps.  Once that was done I do a quick car check and clean up and get ready to board our first group from the 5:30 PM departure for the return trip to Parrish.

The return trip was simple:  Make sure all the passengers were in their seats for departure, then head south to Parrish.  We had the carolers back in once more to entertain us on the trip back.  I also distributed mints to all of the SAL 821 passengers.

We arrived in Parrish and we thanked our passengers for riding with us as they descended the steep steps.  Once all passengers were off board it was a quick car check and clean so that we can take our next group back to Parrish.

All said and done, we return to the North Pole to fetch our 7:30 PM group for the return trip to Parrish.  Once again, have all the passengers in their seats for departure, and the carolers come back in once more.

By 10:30 PM we brought our second group of passengers back to Parrish.  It was getting tiring for me but I had to make sure that the car was cleaned up and checked after all the passengers have detrained.  By then it was time to head back to Willow for the night.

After a short while including checking my emails on my laptop I retreated to the bunk for the night, letting Saturday night evolve into Sunday morning.  After all, Sunday morning meant that we do not have our regular train rides where we have to be on the train at 8 AM.  That meant I got to sleep in later!

By the time Sunday mid-morning came around it was time to start getting ready for Sunday evening’s North Pole Express.  However, due to my regular work schedule during the week I would end up going to Parrish in my own vehicle as opposed to carpooling with a fellow crew member; that meant having to tidy up my crew bunk and gathering all my personal belongings and being ready to head home as soon as we were done with Sunday’s North Pole Express.

4 PM Sunday afternoon, which meant crew briefing time.  I got assigned to another open air car and indicated my meal preference for the first deadhead trip back to Parrish.  Then it was on to my assigned car to start boarding our passengers for the 5:30 PM run.

Boarding was quite simple:  Check the tickets but don’t pull them.  After all, the conductor wanted to make things very simple so that we can depart Parrish on time.  In my assigned car, I give the mandatory safety briefing prior to departure.

5:30 PM came.  The conductor radioed to the engineer in the 1835 to “take us north to the North Pole!”  Two horn blasts and we were underway.  Soon the carolers would come in and entertain the passengers in my assigned car.

Right after the carolers came through the car we came upon Santa’s workshop, then the North Pole.  My responsibility as Car Host is simple:  Keep the passengers in their seats until we come to a complete stop, ensure that the passengers take their belongings with them, and assist the passengers down the steep steps getting off the train.

After the last of our 5:30 PM group departs the train it was time for a car check, then over to the ACL 250 car for dinner as we head back south to Parrish to retrieve our 7:30 PM passengers.  Once in Parrish it was the same thing as before:  Check tickets, board our passengers, give the safety briefing and head north to the North Pole.  Don’t forget the carolers on our way north.

Santa’s Workshop and the North Pole came too quick.  Do the same thing as with the 5:30 PM passengers:  Assist passengers in navigating the steep steps and welcome them to the North Pole!  Right after all passengers have departed a quick car check and clean up before we board our 5:30 PM group for the return trip to Parrish.

While on the way to Parrish, hand out the mints to all the passengers and be entertained by the carolers on our way south.  Once we got to Parrish, it was a matter of assisting the passengers in getting off the train and thanking them for riding with us.  After all the passengers are detrained it was time for yet another car check and clean before heading over to the ACL 250 for the northbound deadhead ride to the North Pole to collect our 7:30 PM passengers.

Once at the North Pole we collect up our 7:30 PM passengers and we head back south to Parrish.  The trip is the same thing as before:  Hand out mints to the passengers and entertainment by the carolers.

Back at Parrish we detrain the passengers by assisting them down the steep steps and thanking them for riding with us.  When the last passenger departs it meant going through the car and picking up all the mint wrappers and making sure the car is clean, not to mention checking the car to make sure that all passengers have indeed detrained.

It was getting around 10:30 PM, and I had a long drive back home, not to mention having to be at my regular day job the next day.   After some final paperwork for the evening I was on my way home, using Interstate 75 over to Interstate 4 and west on Interstate 4 to Interstate 275 through downtown Tampa, then south on Interstate 275 across the Howard Frankland Bridge into St. Petersburg.

Now for the second weekend of the North Pole Express, 12 to 15 December 2013.  As I mentioned previously I did not work the Thursday runs, just the Friday, Saturday and Sunday runs.  Basically it was the same as before:  Work a half a day at my day job, then make the run southward on Interstate 275 over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to Interstate 75 and the Parrish exit (Exit 229).

But first, head to Willow to drop off my stuff, as it would be my home for the next two nights.  After I get everything set up, catch a ride to Parrish in time for the 4 PM crew briefing.  I get my car assignment and meal preference at the crew briefing.

Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse:  The generator in the ACL 250 failed, which meant having to do a set off and have the passengers who were supposed to ride in the ACL 250 ride in the open air gondola.  Fortunately, the passengers supposed to be in the ACL 250 were given refunds and gift cards to use on a future train ride from what I heard.

As everything else was the same when we did the two runs I will omit what we did on board, as I covered it earlier.  However, after our last run on Friday of the second weekend the ACL 250 had to be rushed back to Willow to swap the generator.  Once the ACL 250 was back in Willow, the maintenance crew got right to work on getting that generator replaced and ready to go for Saturday evening’s run.

After all, the hard work of the maintenance crew paid off, while at the same time not disturbing me in the bunk as we were sleeping.  The end result on Saturday morning was that we had a generator that worked that allowed us to operate the ACL 250 once more.  In fact, I even got a ride in the ACL 250 headed south to Parrish, just in time for the 4 PM crew briefing.  Within a short while we got underway after we got our assignments and entered our dinner preferences for the evening.

My assignment for the second Saturday of the North Pole Express was Cabooses A and B, while another fellow crew member had Caboose C.  Being in the party caboose, it called for modifying the safety briefing to let the passengers know not only that hands cannot be outside the windows, parents were responsible for the safety of their children and only two people per seat were permitted to ride in the cupola of the caboose.

After the last run of the evening it was time for me to ride back to Willow for the evening.  It was time to relax and unwind by going on my laptop to check my email among other things.  After a short while it was time to retreat for the night and let Saturday evening evolve into Sunday morning.

Sunday morning came, and it was just like last Sunday.  I got the most coveted assignment for the North Pole Express:  Be Car Host in the ACL 250 car!  Besides, my feet needed to heal from new shoes I bought specifically for being a volunteer car host as I unfortunately developed blisters on the back of my feet the night before.

I got the ACL 250 ready for both runs, as it required a bottle of water and a cup that the passenger uses to get hot chocolate when at the North Pole.  After all, that’s a benefit of riding in the First Class section of the North Pole Express.

The Sunday run went without a hitch.  The newly repaired generator in the ACL 250 held up perfectly without any failures.  By the time we wrapped up our last run it was about 10:30 PM and it was time for me to head home to St. Petersburg via Interstates 75, 4 and 275 through downtown Tampa.

Fast forward to the third and final weekend of the North Pole Express, 20 to 22 December 2013.  It was the same thing as before:  Head over to Willow from my office in downtown St. Petersburg using the Sunshine Skyway and Interstate 275 to store my stuff, then drive over to Parrish.  Unlike the past two Fridays, I could not get a ride with a fellow crew member as the crew member only worked the Thursday before

Friday I got yet another coveted assignment, which would be Caboose C, and on Saturday I got assigned to the 6324 baggage car but I had a volunteer under me that was a tremendous help in running the concession stand while I was doing my car host duties.

And for Sunday, the last run of the North Pole Express, the conductor gave me the most coveted assignment:  Car Host on the ACL 250.  Of all the days I worked on the North Pole Express, my assignment on the ACL 250 on the last Sunday of the North Pole Express is the best Car Host assignment that I will remember.

As I was off the next day which meant I did not have to go to my day job the next day, I spent the night in the bunk and the next morning I assisted the maintenance crew in taking down the many strings of lights among other things.  Believe me, it was a team effort as we had to have the lights out of the tents because the tent rental company was picking up our tents.  After working up a good sweat and getting my hands dirty I left the Willow yard about 12 Noon to head back to St. Petersburg via Tampa, and for me to prepare for Christmas and New Year’s.

And to the many passengers who I had the pleasure to serve, whether you were on the 6324 Baggage Car, the SAL 821 Car, the ACL 250 Lounge Car or in any one of the cabooses and I was your assigned Car Host, I say from the bottom of my heart a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Being the best Christmas I have ever had, I have found a new Christmas tradition for me:  Being a volunteer on the North Pole Express, regardless of my role.  And I am looking forward to North Pole Express for 2014!  (And hopefully, I can expand my schedule to include all four days over three weekends in December from Thursday to Sunday!)

And one more thing, if I could get your attention for just a moment.  May I?

I have been a member of the Florida Railroad Museum since January 2013, but I started out being a volunteer several months later in late September 2013 (with the one minor exception being Day Out With Thomas in March 2013 being a member of the ground crew checking tickets and handing out maps) starting out on one weekend day on Sundays, one Sunday in September and all Sundays of October 2013, gradually working my way up to both weekend days starting with the Pumpkin Patch Express in late October 2013.

This would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of the Florida Railroad Museum’s car host trainer and my very special friend, Karen.  It is Karen that taught me how to be an effective Car Host as well as showing me how the train operates so that I can be prepared to take on additional responsibilities and work my way upward at the museum, not to mention being my first year with the museum and a significant event such as the North Pole Express.  As such, I dedicate this blog entry to Karen.

Onward with 2014, and another great year at the Florida Railroad Museum!

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