Our first regular train run of 2014!

We wrapped up our first weekend of regular train rides here at the Florida Railroad Museum since coming back from our two weekend break for the holidays following our successful North Pole Express 2013 run.  Believe me, after three weekends of plenty of Christmas fun those two weekends over Christmas and New Years were well deserved.

Our first weekend back went without any problems, especially in the new ACL 250 lounge car which is the museum’s new concession stand.  When I came in to the Willow yard I noticed that the train consist has changed:  We had not only the ACL 250 but the SAL 821, the 6324 Baggage Car and the open air flat car.

But what was missing from the consist was our open air gondola car and the 5416 New Georgia car!  After all, the New Georgia was the museum’s concession stand for years and it had air conditioning to help beat the heat on those summer days!  Now with the ACL 250 lounge car as the museum’s newest acquisition that has a concession stand utilizing a counter and the fact that the ACL 250 is air conditioned, the museum wanted to update the consist we use not only on our regular ride days but at our themed train ride events.

Speaking of the open air gondola car, that car is the best open air car for our passengers that come out and ride with us.  Not only passengers get a view of the Florida countryside as we roll along to Willow from Parrish and back, our passengers can watch the runarounds we do on the siding just before the Willow yard and examine our Willow yard from the comfort and safety of the train while at the same time we volunteers like me can give a great talk about Willow and the town from its beginnings as a lumber mill in the 1920’s.

It was sometime after 8 AM Saturday morning, 11 January 2014.  We had a new crew member starting out with us, doing his volunteering as part of an intern project.  I got to walk the train along with the conductor to make sure that the brakes were applied, and within a short time it was time for crew briefing.

My assignment of the day was the 6324 Baggage Car.   Right after the crew briefing I walked over to the 6324 to check the overall condition of the car including the cleanliness of the two restrooms on the northern end of the 6324.  By the time I checked things over it was time for us to begin our trek south to Parrish; the sun was shining despite the overcast sky as we made our way on the rails out of Willow.

Once in Parrish we get set up and ready to board our 11 AM group of passengers.  The assignment was very simple:  Check and pull tickets and welcome the passengers aboard.  Unlike our recent North Pole Express, seating on our regular train rides is anywhere you want, first come, first served.

Now that everyone’s on board, I give the mandatory safety briefing in the 6324.  Then, at 11 AM, it’s “all aboard!” and we are on our way towards Willow.  I keep the passengers in the 6324 entertained and informed with what is going on as we make our way north to Willow.

Just a mile north of the Dickey Road railroad crossing at milepost SW 857.0 the train slows down.  At this location is what we call Nichols Station; Nichols is actually a members memorial for those members who have passed away.  In fact, there is one plaque honoring a member at the moment at Nichols.  The train slows down here at Nichols out of respect for the members who have passed on.

We resume our normal pace after Nichols as we head towards Willow.  In a short time we see the Florida Power & Light (FP&L) Manatee Power Plant in the distance, which is also known as Santa’s Workshop during North Pole Express.  Just after the FP&L plant and the curve is the siding where we do the runaround and Willow, but we do not do the runaround today because of the length of the train.

Once in Willow I give the speech about the history of Willow back to its heydays in the 1920’s as a logging mill operation for the benefit of my 6324 passengers who wanted to remain in the car.  After that I answer any questions that my passengers have and in a short time I have my passengers take their seats so that we can be on our way back to Parrish.

Within a few minutes we were on our way back to Parrish!  I walk around the 6324 baggage car and answer any questions the passengers may have.  After six and a half miles of railroad including the railroad crossing at Dickey Road we were back in Parrish.  Once back in Parrish I thank the passengers for coming and to return back soon!

Right after our last 11 AM passenger departs then it’s time for lunch with the crew!  We have our lunch and discuss what we did for our first regular train run since North Pole Express.  An hour or so later it was time for me to board our next group of passengers for our 2 PM run.  The assignment was very simple:  Pull the stubs from the tickets and give the stubs to the conductor for number checking.

As soon as our 2 PM passengers board it’s time for the safety briefing, which I do shortly before departure.  At 2 PM we finally depart for Willow, where I do the same thing like I did with the 11 AM run.

The 2 PM run went smoothly just like the earlier 11 AM run.  Once our 2 PM passengers departed it was time for a clean check of the train which meant empty the trash and make sure that my 6324 car was clean, which it was.  In addition, the restrooms on board also have to be checked, as is with every run.

After I get these items taken care of I assist the crew in other tasks as needed as we get underway back to home sweet maintenance and crew base in Willow for the evening.  Once in Willow I collect my stuff and head on over to the crew bunk for the night, as I would be on duty the next day.  But first, I head on over to a nearby Subway to pick myself up dinner for the night to bring back to the crew bunk, as I was so tired but I needed to have my dinner early.

Saturday evening gave way to Sunday morning, and I got myself ready for the run of the day.  We had a different conductor and I was assigned to run concessions in the new ACL 250 lounge car.  Let me tell you, the concession counter on board the train in the museum’s newly acquired lounge car is much more organized than the little concession stand we had for many years in the 5416 New Georgia car.

It’s the same thing as the day before:  Head on south to Parrish to pick up our 11 AM passengers.  But first, we do a test to see if we can do our pre-Willow runaround as we were a long train, and we passed!

Once in Parrish I had to fill the ACL 250’s water tank as we were running low, not to mention a huge group of passengers coming on board for our 2 PM run.  I managed to get the hose into the fill nozzle of the ACL 250 but once the tank was full, I had a hard time getting the hose out of the fill nozzle of the 250 as the hose was catching on the inside latch, making removal difficult.  After some assistance we got the hose out of the nozzle and we were able to board our 11 AM passengers.

When we returned to Parrish it was time for crew lunch and our 2 PM passengers.  We had a group from the Manatee Garden Club come with us for a ride on the train.

We did our runaround on the 2 PM run.  What I mean by the runaround is that just south of Willow is a siding where the locomotive will disconnect from one side of the train, then run on the siding over to the other end of the train and connect onto the train from there.  Once connected the train will make a backward move into the Willow yard, similar to what you see on Amtrak’s Silver Star Trains 91 and 92 as they have to be backed into Tampa’s Union Station due to the station being a stub-in as opposed to a run-through facility.

After the runaround we backed into the Willow yard.  Once in the Willow yard I give my talk about the history of Willow tracing back to its lumber mill heydays in the 1920’s and answer any questions my passengers had.  Then it was time to head back to Parrish.

Once in Parrish I thank my passengers for coming out and riding with us.  Then it was time to do a clean check of the ACL 250 car including emptying trash and servicing the restrooms among other things.  Then I assisted the crew as we made our way back to Willow where we would park the train for the week.

For me, it was time to begin unloading my crew bunk and put the stuff back in my car for the trip back home to St. Petersburg via Tampa and Interstate 75, the Selmon Crosstown Expressway including the new Selmon Crosstown to Interstate 4 connector, Interstate 4 and Interstate 275 through downtown Tampa to St. Petersburg, passing by Tampa International Airport on the way.  After all, I had to be at my regular day job the next day but I had some time to get a few things accomplished in the short time that I had.

All in all, our first weekend back after two weeks of holiday fun I think was a great success.  And I am looking forward to the special events that are coming up here at the Florida Railroad Museum, such as the Hobo Campfire Cookout, Hole in the Head Gang Train Robbery, Murder Mystery Express and Day Out With Thomas.  I am especially excited for Day Out With Thomas that is coming up in March!

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