A Permanent Station Home for the Florida Railroad Museum

When the Florida Railroad Museum was founded in 1982, it initially bounced around from one place to another in the Tampa area.  Slowly but surely, as the museum acquired locomotives and rail cars to its collection a permanent home was in order.

In 1992 the museum finally moved to its Manatee County home in Parrish along with a home in Willow which would become the museum’s yard as well as 6.5 miles of railroad track leased to the museum by Florida Power & Light, which bought the track in order for them to maintain rail access to the Manatee Power Plant.  The museum, as part of the lease agreement, maintains this track and in return the museum offers its train rides on the weekends at 11 AM and 2 PM Saturday and Sunday.

When the museum moved into its Parrish home in 1992 and began offering train rides, the ticket office and gift shop was housed in a converted baggage car which was brought down from storage in Willow in the morning and returned to Willow in the evening.  Over the years the Parrish site added some exhibits including the Bradenton sleeping car as well as the BEDT (Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal) steam locomotive, both which are on display at the museum.  A few years ago another rail car was repurposed which became the home of the museum’s model train display.

Now the Florida Railroad Museum is turning another chapter in its history:  After so many years of operating out of a converted baggage car being the home of the ticket office and gift shop, the Florida Railroad Museum has begun construction on a permanent brick-and-mortar station home in Parrish.  According to an article in the Bradenton Herald, the new station home will be 20,000 square feet with a 5,000 square foot freight room/meeting room, ticket office, gift shop sales area and railroad memorabilia.

Having a more permanent station facility in Parrish will make the Florida Railroad Museum look more attractive.  For passengers taking a ride on either the museum’s regularly scheduled train rides or the museum’s special events such as the North Pole Express, passengers can wait until the train is ready to board in climate controlled comfort, out of the elements such as when it rains (remember when the ticket office and gift shop were located on the Parrish siding track and you had to walk a distance to the boarding ramp?).  While inside, passengers can browse through the gift shop as well as take a look at the exhibits that would be housed inside the station building.

Not only a permanent station facility at the Florida Railroad Museum would definitely put Parrish on the map, the goal is to make the museum the go-to location for train rides and special events not only for Manatee County but for the Tampa Bay region as a whole.  Finally, the Florida Railroad Museum would get a more permanent brick-and-mortar home, coming a long way from the days when the ticket office and gift shop were operated out of a converted baggage car.

Now for a side note related to the construction of the Florida Railroad Museum’s new station facility in Parrish, if I can get your undivided attention for just a moment.

Every time I drive on Interstate 75 past the exit for the Florida Railroad Museum at Moccasin Wallow Road (Exit 229, one mile north of the southern terminus of Interstate 275 at Exit 228) I am puzzled as to why there is no signage for the Florida Railroad Museum at Exit 229.  Being one of two official state railroad museums in the State of Florida (the other official state railroad museum, of course, is the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami), I feel its official state railroad museum status undoubtedly qualifies for signage.

When I am talking about signage, I am talking about signage that is on a brown background which, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), is the legend for Recreational and Cultural Interest Signage.  An example can be seen on Interstate 4 at County Line Road (Exit 25) with signage for the Florida Air Museum (an aviation museum located on the grounds of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Lakeland) which is well posted utilizing the proper MUTCD background color.  I am not talking about the logo signage you see just before an interchange for gas, food, lodging and attractions; if you see attractions on one of these signs it is a for profit commercial business and, as such, commercial businesses have to pay to have their logos displayed.  After all, the Florida Railroad Museum is not a commercial for profit tourist attraction – the Florida Railroad Museum is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose purpose is Preserving Florida’s Railroad History.

Now that a new permanent brick-and-mortar station building is being constructed in Parrish, the Florida Railroad Museum deserves appropriate signage from Interstate 75 at Exit 229.  There is signage right from US 301, but what good is it if you don’t have signage from a major traffic generator such as Interstate 75?

Here’s an example of what it would look like.  We’ll use southbound Interstate 75 approaching Exit 229 as an example.  This is what the signage looks like now:

Using Microsoft Paint (the image editor that comes with Windows, much cheaper than Adobe Photoshop), I did a treatment of what it would look like with both the Florida Railroad Museum on the brown background and Moccasin Wallow Road on the green background:

Now that the Florida Railroad Museum is getting a more permanent home in Parrish, I think we need to convince the powers-to-be at the Florida Department of Transportation (both at District One in Bartow (FDOT District One covers Southwest Florida including Manatee County) as well as Tallahassee) that the Florida Railroad Museum, one of two official state railroad museums of the State of Florida, deserves signage from Interstate 75.  After all, there is a saying that if you build it, they will come.

One more thing:  The Florida Railroad Museum, despite its official state railroad museum status, does not get any funding from the State of Florida or from Manatee County for its programs and activities.  The Florida Railroad Museum depends on your support, whether it may be paying an admission to ride the train, becoming a member, or donating to help preserve Florida’s railroad history.  Even though the museum is getting a reimbursement from the Manatee County Tourist Development Council for making the station building a reality, the museum still depends on your donations so that Florida’s railroading history can be preserved for generations to come.

If you would like to make a donation to further help make the Parrish station building a reality, you can do so by going to the website of the Florida Railroad Museum and clicking on “Support the Museum”.  There when you make your donation you can have your donation go towards the new Parrish station building.

The Florida Railroad Museum has certainly come a long way.  With a new station building in Parrish, the future of the museum is bright!

The In The Shadow of the Railroad Museum Blog is Back!

I am proud to bring back the In The Shadow of the Railroad Museum Blog after being on a hiatus for a few years!

Over the past few years since I premiered this blog over at Blogger, I had it up for a few months but for personal reasons I ended up taking it down.  In addition, I have became a member of and proudly became a train crew member at yet another railroad museum in Florida:  The Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami.

Just recently I switched web hosting providers and my new web hosting provider provides much better support for not only my websites but for blogs hosted on the WordPress platform.  When I converted the Edward Ringwald Blog from Blogger over to WordPress I has very impressed with the look and feel of WordPress.  That said, I decided to bring back the In The Shadow of the Railroad Museum Blog and put it in my awesome blog collection here at the Edward Ringwald Websites Network.

I know, it’s been a few years for this blog but you’ll see more exciting entries to come.  But for the time being, please feel free to sit back in your comfy railroad coach seat and enjoy.

Day Out With Thomas 2014: Looking back at 2013

As Day Out With Thomas 2014 is just over the horizon, I feel it is an honor to republish the blog entry I made over at my other blog, the Edward Ringwald Blog, when I volunteered for Day Out With Thomas in 2013.  I was just a couple of months into being a member at the Florida Railroad Museum and working Day Out With Thomas 2013 was my first ever volunteer activity with the museum.  So, without much further ado, here is my blog entry from my experience with a Day Out With Thomas which transpired over two weekends in March 2013.

NOTE: This is an edited version of the blog entry as I edited and updated the links as needed.

Recently the Florida Railroad Museum proudly hosted a Day Out With Thomas for two weekends in March 2013.  As a proud member of the Florida Railroad Museum, I volunteered for the event over the two weekends performing a number of duties ranging from crowd control to checking tickets and issuing wristbands for the many people that attended.

After all, membership in the Florida Railroad Museum has a lot of benefits.  The one major benefit, free train rides on regular ride weekends, is an excellent justification for me to go out and about rather than spend all day at home and sitting on the couch or comfy chair watching TV or YouTube.

After all, volunteers are the lifeblood of the Florida Railroad Museum.  When there is a special event taking place such as a Day Out With Thomas, the museum does everything it can do to recruit volunteers from all walks of life, including this experienced Interstate 275 Florida roadgeek and railfan in training.

In fact, the museum gave us volunteers a free train ride on the last train of the day as a token of appreciation for our hard working and dedicated service over the two weekends the event was held.  While on the train, which was a ride to just south of Dickey Road in Manatee County and back to Parrish, I happened to enjoy the continuous Thomas and Friends music including the main Thomas theme; right after I disembarked from the train I went to the gift shop and bought me a CD called Thomas and Friends All Star Tracks; I was enjoying some Thomas tunes including Go Go Thomas, Roll Call (which is also the main Thomas theme), Misty Island Rescue, What Makes An Engine Happy and the others that were on the CD for the ride on northbound Interstate 75 through Tampa and back to Interstate 275 and St. Petersburg.

While I was in the gift shop, I noticed that the other Thomas and Friends CDs (not the one I bought) were on the Koch International label.  This rang a bell:  I have a 2 CD Avsenik Ensemble album on the same Koch International label in my increasingly expanding Slovene music collection.

Have you also visited my railroad museums page over at my website?  You ought to come by and check it out!

For more information on the Florida Railroad Museum, head on over to their website.  There you can get the latest information on the regular train rides plus the themed train rides that are scheduled throughout the year, including the annual Day Out With Thomas event.

What I enjoyed very much is the smiles I have seen on the children when they enter the event, especially when I hand them a map that features Thomas prominently in the center.  Believe me, it was the best two weekends in March 2013 that I will remember.

Since I volunteered for Day Out With Thomas 2013, I continued to take many more train rides using my free train ride on regular ride days benefit.  As I was riding the train, the conductors and train crew started to know that I was a member but I had a few other things going on at the same time.

Fast forward to September 2013 and a few weeks after Labor Day weekend.  I took yet another ride using my free ride benefit as a member.  I was so convinced that I decided to make the decision that would redefine my weekend activities:  Become a volunteer on the train crew!  So, I gave my business card to the conductor who was after me to get on the train crew and, within a couple of days, I got an email explaining how to sign up.  I still remember the day when I got my first email telling me to report to Willow at 8 AM on a Sunday morning to receive my first crew assignment.  I was so excited!

And the rest is history.

A Whole Lot Of Events Going On!

I know, it’s been a while since I posted here but I have been so busy between the regular train rides and the themed train rides we’re having.  So, let’s get right down to what has been going on lately here at the Florida Railroad Museum!

First of all, we had our first themed train ride in early February, which is the Hole In The Head Gang Train Robbery.  Let me tell you, this is edge of your seat fun as US Marshals (played by actors, of course) see to it that the shipment of gold is put on the train and secured.  However, when we get to just south of Dickey Road the fun begins when the train stops only to find out that someone made off with the gold!

In addition to the Train Robbery event, on the Saturday part of the Train Robbery weekend we also had our Hobo Campfire Cookout.  It consisted of a train ride to our Willow facility and event grounds where participants were given a hot dog to roast over an open pit fire.  Believe me, those hot dogs tasted awesome when roasted over the open fire!  (However, it got a little chilly as the sun sets to the west so I ended up getting back inside the train before we boarded our passengers for the return trip).  By the way, I only had one and that was practically my meal for the evening, as I was watching my diet closely.  In addition to the hot dog roasting, participants were treated to music by a local Bluegrass band.

After the dust settled on the Train Robbery and Hobo Campfire Cookout events we had two more regular ride weekends before our next event which would take place over three weekends, one weekend in late February and two weekends in early March:  Murder Mystery Express, and this year’s theme was Murder in 3-D.

I had an opportunity to be a crew member on many of the Murder Mystery Express runs as well as assisted in other activities related to the Murder Mystery Express, specifically assisting on the ground at Willow and assisting staff at the ticket office in Parrish distributing will call to our passengers who had purchased tickets for the Murder Mystery show.  That being said, here’s how a typical Murder Mystery show played out:

1.  The passengers board and there is assigned seating, similar to North Pole Express.  As Car Hosts we direct the passengers to their seats and in case of any seating problems we contact the conductor on the radio.

2.  As soon as we are boarded, we Car Hosts have to retreat to areas on board our assigned cars – once the show starts, the actors have full control.

3.  Just before we get started we hand out appetizers to our passengers.  This means wearing disposable gloves; after all, food safety is very important!

4.  The show is in three acts:

Act One takes place on the train headed north towards Willow.

Act Two takes place in Willow while you are having dinner.

Act Three takes place on the return train to Parrish.

5.  During the short intervals where there is no acting the passengers are trying to solve the whodunit and writing their thoughts on a clue sheet given to them as they came on board.

6.  While the passengers are enjoying their dinner we car hosts and the rest of the crew also get dinner too!

I had a great time working the Murder Mystery Express, no matter being a car host on board or working on the ground either in Willow assisting in setup and cleanup or in Parrish assisting in ticket sales and will call. It was the best time I have had yet!

Now that Murder Mystery Express has come and gone, it’s time to change gears and get ready for Day Out With Thomas.  That’s right, one of my favorite Florida Railroad Museum events in addition to North Pole Express, Day Out With Thomas, and this year’s theme is The Thrill Of The Ride Tour 2014!  A lot of preparation goes into making sure that the Day Out With Thomas event goes so smoothly and without a hitch; therefore, I had the honor of being in Parrish for a couple of days setting up the computer equipment both in the event gift shop tent and the ticket tent among the many other things.

Now did you get your tickets for Day Out With Thomas?  Advance purchase is highly recommended and you can do that by going to the Florida Railroad Museum’s website and clicking on the Day Out With Thomas graphic on the left side of the page.  Once there you can find a good wealth of information and a link to purchase your tickets.

Your ticket entitles you to all day admission on the grounds plus your train ride at the time you select.  The time you select for your train ride is printed on your ticket.  Allow ample time to get to the museum in Parrish so that you and your family can participate in the events including your train ride.  Speaking of your train ride, you may want to make your way to the boarding area at least 30 minutes before your train’s scheduled departure time.  Again, your train departure time is printed on your ticket and believe me, Thomas does indeed depart on time; doors close three minutes before departure for the mandatory safety check.

Day Out With Thomas takes place on 15 and 16 March 2014 as well as 22 and 23 March 2014.  Admission is $18 each for all guests ages two and up.  After all, Thomas is for all ages!

So, we got an exciting two weekends coming up at the Florida Railroad Museum!  After Day Out With Thomas we got the Cottontail Express coming up on Saturday, 19 April 2014 at 10 AM, 1 PM and 4 PM.  Again, check the Florida Railroad Museum website for details and to purchase tickets.  And while you’re there, you can purchase tickets for our regular train rides we have on the weekends at 11 AM and 2 PM; just after the Cottontail Express in April we will be back to our regular ride fare for the summer – and plenty of time for this now certified car host to train for the next step.

Let the Trainman games begin!

Here we are for yet plenty of fun weekends on the rails here at the Florida Railroad Museum!  Sounds like a great time to get a jump start on the more responsibilities that are to come as far as being on the train crew is concerned. 

It’s Saturday morning, 18 January 2014.  Believe me, it was a nice yet cold morning in the Willow yard as I got ready to meet the day’s crew including the conductor for our regular train rides.  Just after I put my stuff away in the ACL 250 lounge car I got a preview of more responsibilities that are yet to come being a train crew volunteer.

When we returned from our two week hiatus over the holidays, I finally became a certified Car Host, which essentially paves the way for me to train to move myself up in the volunteer train crew hierarchy, and that would be Trainman.  Now I don’t have to write the word “training” as a Car Host in my service record!

That said, let the Trainman games begin.

My first task was to start the generator in the ACL 250 car.  Starting it is very simple, but you got to know what you are doing.  First, unplug the extension cord in order to avoid backfeed when the generator is started.  Second, check the oil level in the generator to see if it’s sufficient, which it is.  Third, flip the switch and wait for the lights to flash.  Fourth, press the Manual button and hold until the generator starts.

In two seconds, the generator springs to life.  So far so good!

Finally, flip the breaker switch to the left of the generator.  That turns on the heater on board the ACL 250, which was desperately needed due to the bitter cold weather outside.  Within a few minutes we had a comfortable temperature in the ACL 250!

And one more thing:  Plug the cord into the receptacle on board.  Now we’re ready to go!

Time for me to go back inside the train and review the conductor’s logs.  Make sure that the cars have been filled with water, which has already been taken care of.

Once we were on our way south to Parrish, I get my next responsibility while under the supervision of a certified Trainman on duty:  Operating the tail hose while we are in a reversing mode from Willow to Parrish.  First order of the day was for me to connect the tail hose to the rear of the train:

1.  Connect the tail hose to the air hose.
2.  Open the angle cock, a valve that permits air to pass through.
3.  Test the tail hose when air pressure from the locomotive is good.

Then it was back on the train for the six and a half mile trip to Parrish.  Using my radio, I have to communicate to the engineer all the mile posts from Willow to Parrish:

Mile Post 855.  Clear track.
Mile Post 856.  Clear track.
Mile Post 857 (Nichols).  Clear track.

Then I get my next task as we approach Mile Post 858:  How many cars to Dickey Road?  As we had five cars in our consist calling those car lengths can get a little tricky at first, but it takes practice.  And practice I must.

So, I prepare myself for Dickey Road 1,500 feet prior at the whistle board.  After all, this is equivalent to around 15 cars; after all, a typical passenger railroad car is 85 feet.

Get to a landmark and announce on the radio to the engineer:

Five cars to Dickey Road.
Four cars.
Three cars.
Two cars.
One car.


Clear Dickey Road, clear track southbound.  Sound the tail hose whistle in the format of Morse Code Q, long, long, short and long – the last long is sounded on the crossing itself.

My car counts were good on the first try, but I still need practice.  Continue south to Parrish.

Into the curve.  Once out of the curve, go on the radio and tell the engineer “out of the curve, clear track”.

Mile Post 859 clear track.  Engineer replies clear track.  (We’re under the Florida Power & Light power lines coming from the Manatee Power Plant here).

Next up, the Parrish switch where we store our cabooses on the side track near the Parrish station.  Do the car length calls again:

Five cars to the Parrish switch.
Four cars.
Three cars.
Two cars.
One car.


Clear Parrish switch, clear track to standing equipment.  Standing equipment?

Yes, there is standing equipment on the right hand side as you approach Parrish coming south.  First, you got the two cabooses, then the Bradenton sleeper and the ticket office/gift shop.  Get on radio and advise of standing equipment.

Once past the standing equipment, the conductor takes control of the train as we approach the Parrish ramp.  I pass control of the train over to the conductor so that the train can be properly lined up with the ramp.

After we align with the ramp properly, we come to a stop in Parrish.  My next task is to disconnect the tail hose from the air hose, but I have to call the engineer for a three step prior to turning the angle cock closed.

Three step?  What is a three step?

Well, a three step is a Trainman’s best friend as far as safety is concerned.  When a three step is called, the engineer will do the following in the locomotive:

1.  Set the generator field switch off.
2.  Apply the independent brake.
3.  Set the reverser in neutral.

Now that three step is applied, I can go ahead and turn the angle cock the other way to closed so that I can remove the tail hose.  Turn the angle cock closed and wait a minute or two.  Then disconnect the tail hose from the air hose.  Mission accomplished, return tail hose to conductor’s office!

Don’t forget to release the three step when done!  It’s simple as calling the engineer on the radio and requesting the three step release.

Back on board, I change gears into my certified Car Host mode and head to my assigned car, ready to take on the morning’s passengers!

To be continued…

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!

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!

Upcoming Events at the Florida Railroad Museum for the first part of 2014

As you probably know, we are on our two weekend break for Christmas and New Year’s, which is highly deserved after a tiring three weekends in December with the North Pole Express.  But we did a great job, especially for me being my first North Pole Express.
According to the Florida Railroad Museum’s website, we will be resuming our train operations on Saturday, 11 January 2014 beginning with our regular rides at 11 AM and 2 PM both on that Saturday as well as Sunday, 12 January 2014.  If you haven’t been out on the train with us, or you could not get tickets for the North Pole Express as the event was sold out, you owe it to yourself to come out and experience not only a train ride but an educational experience including the history of the town of Willow among other things.
Remember, you can purchase tickets online at the Florida Railroad Museum’s website for all of our regular train rides as well as our themed train rides scheduled throughout the year.  Tickets for the themed train rides go on sale well in advance, so you may want to keep checking the website for availability as the event draws closer.
This is very important if you want to consider getting tickets for North Pole Express 2014.  Tickets for that event go on sale around Labor Day weekend; you will want to keep checking the museum’s website as Labor Day weekend gets closer for dates when you will be able to purchase tickets for that event.
With that said, here’s the upcoming event schedule through March 2014, according to the Florida Railroad Museum’s website:
25 January 2014:  Hobo Campfire Cookout at 5 PM.
1 February 2014 and 2 February 2014:  Hole In The Head Gang Train Robbery at 11 AM and 2 PM.  Also on 1 February 2014 we will also have the Hobo Campfire Cookout at 5 PM.
21, 22, 23 and 28 February 2014 and 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9 March 2014:  Murder Mystery Dinner Train, and this year it’s Murder in 3-D.  Trains depart at 6 PM on Fridays, 2 PM and 6 PM on Saturdays and 2 PM on Sundays.  Tickets for the Murder Mystery Dinner Train are $47 for the 2 PM matinee and $55 for the 6 PM show.
15 and 16 March 2014 as well as 22 and 23 March 2014:  Day Out With Thomas!  Your children will love a day out on the train with Thomas the Tank Engine.  In fact, Day Out With Thomas is the museum’s most popular event!
Tickets are on sale now for the events described above.  The best way to get your tickets (and hopefully avoid sold out shows) is to order your tickets online; for the Day Out With Thomas event there is a different ticket vendor that handles ticket sales for that event.  It’s very simple as going to the Florida Railroad Museum’s website and clicking on the date you would like to attend.
Now for one word of advice:  Events, dates and times and ticket prices are subject to change.  Again, you will want to check the Florida Railroad Museum’s website for specifics, especially as the date of an event gets closer.
Whether you come out for one of the regular train rides or for any of the themed train rides like the ones that I just mentioned, we’d like to have you on board.  Be sure to buy your tickets in plenty of time and welcome aboard!

Photos from North Pole Express 2013

Merry Christmas!

North Pole Express 2013 at the Florida Railroad Museum has come and gone.  However, for those of you out there that did not or could not get to North Pole Express 2013 (especially because the event sold out), I managed to get a lot of photos for your viewing enjoyment, and they are hosted on my Flickr account.  You can see them here below:

North Pole Express 2013 at the Florida RR Museum

Believe me, it was a long three weekend event in December that I will remember.  I’ll give you a more complete report on the North Pole Express 2013 in my next post, but for now sit back and enjoy the pictures from the sights of North Pole Express 2013 at the Florida Railroad Museum.

Once again, Merry Christmas!

North Pole Express 2013

We’re just ready to wrap up North Pole Express 2013 here at the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish with our last run on Sunday, 22 December 2013.  Already we are getting great media coverage such as this article in the Bradenton Herald.  After all, the North Pole Express is certainly the museum’s biggest event next to Day Out With Thomas.

I had the opportunity to volunteer over three weekends in December on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday runs.  However, I’ll give you a complete report on what went on that makes this event the museum’s best event in my next post, which should be sometime soon.

If you have tried to get tickets for the North Pole Express, you probably know by now that the event is sold out.  But you can plan ahead of time for North Pole Express 2014 and here’s how:

First and foremost, buy your tickets when they go on sale at the first opportunity.  Tickets go on sale right around Labor Day, so you might want to check the Florida Railroad Museum website as Labor Day weekend draws closer to find out when tickets go on sale.

Second,  the quickest way to get your tickets is the museum’s website once they go on sale.  You will want to review your seating options prior to making your purchase.  You can also call to place a phone order for tickets, but be prepared for busy signals when you call.

Third, consider joining the Florida Railroad Museum as a member!  One of the major benefits of being a member besides getting free train rides on our regular ride weekends is the opportunity to purchase your North Pole Express tickets one week before they go on sale to the general public.  The number of tickets you can purchase depends on your membership level; being an individual member (as an example) allows you to purchase just one ticket before the tickets go on sale to the general public.  Of course if you need to purchase more than you are allotted in the member pre-sale you can purchase additional tickets when the tickets go on sale to the general public.

If you purchase your North Pole Express tickets as a member during the member pre-sale be sure to have your membership number – printed on your membership card that you received along with your membership materials when you joined – available when you call.  However, if you do not have your membership number don’t worry, the museum ticket agent can look your membership up for you.

On a side note, another important benefit of membership besides the free train rides on regular ride days and early access to select events such as the North Pole Express is the opportunity to be on the museum’s volunteer train crew!  After all, volunteers – especially the volunteer train crew – are the lifeblood of the Florida Railroad Museum, as it does not receive any funding from Federal, State or Local governments, even though the museum is one of a few railroad museums to be designated as an official State of Florida railroad museum.

So, if you are one of the lucky few out there that has tickets to tonight’s (Sunday, 22 December 2013) North Pole Express, welcome aboard!  Be sure to get to the Parrish station early enough to pick up your tickets (especially if you have not already received your tickets in the mail) and locate your boarding position on the train.  Be sure to look at your tickets for your correct car assignment (and seat assignment, if you are ticketed in Excursion Class or above).