By Stephen Wray
Over the past several years, I’ve made it an annual tradition to head over to the Agence Métropolitaine de Transport’s former CPR Beaconsfield Station to see the CPR Holiday Train as it makes its first stop on its annual wintery pilgrimage across Canada. With every visit, I secretly hoped that someday I would have the opportunity to ride this train and to see from the “inside”, just how it works!
Fortunately, the company for whom I work, Yang Ming Marine Transport, is a large intermodal shipper with Canadian Pacific. As a customer of the railway, my wish was granted in the fall of 2013 with the arrival
of an invitation to ride a segment of my choosing on board the Holiday Train. The only real provisos were that it had to be on a segment that was open to CP employees and pensioners; that I had to make my own transportation arrangements to get to/from the train and that I had to bring my own food along as the train only supplied hot chocolate and cookies.
Now it was decision time! Where to ride? The obvious first choice would have been to ride Winchester (CP’s Vaudreuil and Winchester subdivisions) between Montreal’s St-Luc Yard and Smiths Falls, ON. However, this 121.6-mile leg was not available for operational reasons, therefore I picked the next best thing … the Belleville Subdivision between Smiths Falls and Oshawa, ON … 174.2 miles of “rare mileage” train riding – bereft of passenger service since early 1966. The ride was set to take place on November 28th, 2013.
Fortunately, getting to Smiths Falls is relatively easy with VIA Rail providing regular service via Ottawa. With a 6:44 a.m. departure from Dorval, QC and an arrival in Smiths Falls scheduled for 9:20 a.m., VIA’s train allowed ample time to walk from its station to CP’s for the scheduled Holiday Train departure time of 10:15 a.m. Unseasonably cold weather and lots of snow created a very festive atmosphere for the day’s activities.
Expecting a crowd awaiting departure, I arrived at CP’s Smiths Falls yard to find nary a soul on the platform and my intended “destination”, the Holiday Train, positioned several tracks over in the yard. There was no activity near CP’s former station, built in 1887, which has been owned by the municipality since 2000 and closed as a railway station since VIA moved to its own facilities in 2011. The Smiths Falls Community Theatre now operates the 140-seat Station Theatre in the old restaurant area. Heading over to the yard office, located just to the west of the station, friendly employees radioed the train to find that it would pull out of the yard and over to the platform area after a freight train cleared the area westbound towards Toronto.
With plenty of time to spare prior to departure time, the Holiday Train backed in alongside the platform to pick up passengers. Upon embarking, I was met by CP employees Heather Woods and Rita Sassano who cheerily informed me to take any seat in the 76-seat coach Dominion, CPR car 101. Most local employees and their families had ridden the train the previous evening with closely-spaced shows in Merrickville, Smiths Falls and Perth. Today, on a longer leg, and with passengers having to make their way back to the starting point, participation would be lower.
Departure was right on schedule and in no time at all we were out into the farms and rolling countryside synonymous with southeastern Ontario. After initial hot chocolate and cookies, I was asked if I would prefer some hot coffee – available in the crew galley/dining area of Van Horne. Included was a brief tour of Banffshire, Killarney and Van Horne, including time out on the open observation of Van Horne. By this time we had passed into the Frontenac Axis – a portion of the Canadian Shield – hard Precambrian rock that extends from the Laurentians south to and across the St. Lawrence River into the U.S., and which is responsible for the 1,000 Islands. Photo opportunities abounded.
Back in Van Horne to warm up, I was invited by the crew to move from coach 101 and make the rear-most car my home for the day. Business Car Van Horne, home built by CPR at its Montreal Angus shops in 1927 is a great example of the fine art of heavyweight passenger car construction of that era. A behemoth of a car – riveted maroon coloured steel plate riding on 6 wheel trucks with extensive use of hardwoods throughout the interior – it features a galley at one end, a small dining area in the middle, a couple of state rooms and then the lounge area with very comfy sofas, big picture windows and of course the pièce de resistance, the open brass-railed observation area! The observation platform was frequently the centre of attention as Santa would wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a hearty “HO HO HO” as the train pulled away from the adoring crowds after a performance. Business car Killarney was similarly configured but with additional state rooms and no dining facilities. The lounge area of this car was used as a practice/warm up area by the performers. Stateroom Car 84 Banffshire, as the name implies, has bedrooms and associated facilities only.
In addition to being able to see scenery not usually available to passengers, the all-day ride allowed me to observe the daily operation of the train and to watch the show several times. Performers on the day of my trip were Melanie Doane and Jim Cuddy. As the train had played to crowds at Perth, west of Smiths Falls, the previous evening, we had a 91-mile non-stop run from Smiths Falls to Belleville. After that, there were several shows, each only a few miles apart. At each location we would entrain local dignitaries for the next show. At Belleville, for instance, the commander of CFB Trenton and the mayor of Trenton boarded for the short ride to the performance in their community.
The train operates like a well-oiled machine. A typical Holiday Train event goes something like this: The train arrives and pulls to a safe stop in front of the crowd. The stage door lowers and the band opens with its first song. After that, a brief ceremony takes place involving local food bank officials and dignitaries as CP personnel present a cheque to the local food bank. This is a focal point at each and every stop. Once complete, the band resumes the show. After about a half hour that usually includes a mix of traditional and modern holiday-themed songs, the band plays its farewell song, the boxcar stage door closes, and the train slips off into the night on its way to the next stop. Although we were only 3 days out on the road, the crew and performers had the timing down to a science. We had only one minor glitch with the stage. I noticed while the show was going on in Belleville that the crew attended to fixing lights, etc., at the head end of the train. This is a busy stretch of mainline railway. Although equipped with Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) it’s difficult to slot this slow moving/frequently stopped extra train that attracts many people to trackside in amongst a myriad of regular freight trains. That said, the Rail Traffic Controllers and onboard CP staff did a magnificent job.
If the train evoked a holiday atmosphere during the day, it was sheer magic after dark. To this day there is very little suburbia trackside east of Bowmanville thus after dark, our brightly lit conveyance passed through the darkened country-side casting a subliminal glow of colours and shadows against the crisp white snow. Standing out on the open observation, I could hear the melodies of many festive songs as fine light snow whipped up around the rear of the train and beyond into the blackness of the night … it was very much like the scene from the movie, The Polar Express, as the train speeds towards the North Pole! Truly it was a case of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”. Altogether too soon, my trip on the Holiday Train was coming to an end as we approached Oshawa.
My day travelling on the Holiday Train had spanned approximately 13 hours. The trip home from Oshawa to Dorval the next morning was accomplished on a VIA train in a little under 4.5 hours. Ask me which trip I preferred!
If you have the chance, get over to the Holiday Train location nearest to you in this and upcoming years to support your local community’s food bank through this very worthwhile endeavour that is fully funded by Canadian Pacific.
The 2014 schedule can be secured at: cpr.ca/en/community/holiday-train. Readers can follow the Holiday Train on Facebook at www.facebook.com/HolidayTrain, Twitter at www.twitter.com/CPHolidaytrain or Instagram at instagram.com/cpholidaytrain. Join the conversation with #CPHolidayTrain. At last count there were over 100,000 followers on Facebook.
Although many people are no doubt familiar with the Holiday Train, the history and background is less well-known. That said, let’s take a look!
The first Holiday Train, an employee initiative, ran in 1999. Canadian Pacific and its employees felt very strongly that they should give back to the communities in which they work and live in. Employees felt it was important to show their support for local food banks, especially in November/December – a critical time of year for food bank programs. It was largely the creation of Paul Clark, at that time CP’s Vice-President of Communications and Public Affairs. Although none of the current office staff has been involved since “Day 1” it’s thought that some front line employees that prepare and run the train have been associated with it throughout.
The Holiday Train started out as just one train with only a few hundred lights, reaching about a dozen communities. It has since morphed into two trains with hundreds of thousands of LED lights and festive designs, reaching more than 150 communities each year for a combined distance of 10,000 kilometres.
CPR employees are fully committed to the safe and successful operation of the Holiday Trains each year. In addition to those actually working on the train, there are those behind the scenes that have worked for months to prepare the trains. About a thousand CP employees together with thousands of community volunteers along the rail network in both Canada and the U.S. join in to make the Holiday Train a reality. CP employees are responsible for the actual show, however, individual community groups are responsible to organize the events themselves. Although operating crews are paid for their time, it’s certainly not unheard of for them to donate their wages earned that day to the cause.
The first train was in no way comparable to those now operated. Originally the train consisted of boxcars taken from regular service and decorated with old style incandescent Christmas light bulbs that were difficult to replace enroute. Performance stops were limited as a full stage was set up on the ground, separate from the train. The stops were each approximately half a day long.
In order to speed up the process, the separate stage was done away with in favour of using boxcars with the door fully open on the side facing the public – an improvement allowing for faster turnaround times from initial arrival through the show and finally departure. This permitted an increase in the number of community stops. More recently, the trains, now two – one touring Canada while the other services CP lines in the United States, have featured “stage cars”. These are fully functional stages in the true sense of the word. At each stop, a full stage folds down from the boxcar towards the waiting bystanders. Performers move outside of the car, take position and it’s on with the show. Inside, and out of sight of the audience is all the sound/light equipment: everything that’s required “backstage” except this is a rolling one.
Just as the trains have evolved, so has the preparation for the annual early winter trek across North America. Prepping and planning for the next Holiday Train begins soon after the previous year has wrapped up. Typically, once the trains reach their destinations, the staff dedicated to the preparation of the next year’s train will step away from the project through January/February. Towards the end of February any proposed changes to the train will be reviewed. A great deal of effort goes into the illumination of the train which is now all done with commercial LED-style lighting. For instance, in 2013 much more vibrant LEDs were used throughout. Although the lighting is outsourced, it takes 3-4 months lead time to secure any new materials that are bought in commercial grade rolls of 55 to 120 feet in length. Unlike in the days of the old incandescent bulbs, the lighting circuits now feature “brain boxes” that allow the staff to isolate and repair any outages much more quickly and easier than in the past. In April/May one or two individuals will be assigned to the trains, at least the freight car portion, to fix any damage to the cars. As departure dates draw nearer, work is ramped up so that all is done in time for the first dates with the public.
Initially, there were no cars dedicated to the Holiday Trains thus each year, workers would have to start from scratch, adding brackets and grids to the box cars so that the lighting could be mounted on the cars. Later, boxcars in the 220XXX series were permanently assigned to the trains allowing the steel grid work and lights to be left on the cars thus cutting down on manpower and set up time. Another improvement made over the years has been the replacement of container flatcar mounted generators to much nicer looking power cars that blend in very nicely with the train. Initially the Canadian train’s dedicated boxcars were stored and decorated at Montreal’s St-Luc Yard. Bensenville, IL (Chicago) was the home of the US train. Smiths Falls, ON was also involved in the preparation of the Canadian train with cars shuttled back and forth to St-Luc. For the past two years both trains have been stored and maintained at Calgary’s Alyth Yard when not in use. CP’s Heritage group maintains its own small workforce there, thus these employees, when not involved with other projects, are available to work on the Holiday Train.
Passenger cars required for the trains are pulled from CP’s Heritage and Royal Canadian Pacific fleets, also maintained in Calgary year round. There are two components to the passenger part of the operation:
• Day riders: CP employees, pensioners and their families; and invited guests, many from communities that will be visited along the way that day, and;
• Overnight and dining facilities for staff and performers-not to mention an open-ended observation for the most anticipated person of all – Santa Claus.
To this end, one of CP’s former CN coaches is provided to meet the first requirement and RCP Stateroom and Business cars (3 in total) meet the needs of the individuals essentially living onboard the train.
The business end of things is looked after by two AC4400CW (CP class DRF-44) locomotives built by General Electric in 2004. Number 9815 has powered the Canadian train 2007 – 2013. Likewise, number 9824 has been assigned to the USA train over the same period. Both locomotives feature the full CPR “Beaver” motif. Although both units roam the CPR system in regular freight service throughout the year, they are assigned to this duty every Holiday season as they have pre-mounted brackets for signs, lights, the flags of the U.S. and Canada … a Christmas tree and a gigantic wreath. The bright red of the diesels blends in nicely with the red of the decorated boxcars … not to mention that it’s a wonderful festive colour!
Sometime near the beginning of November each year, the trains, each approximately 1,200 feet in length, are fully assembled in Calgary then forwarded to Montreal’s St-Luc yard for any final tweaking after the journey from Western Canada and to attend to any final details prior to the launch of both trains from Montreal in late November – one heading south to the USA and the other west. Montreal’s typical gray rainy November days with temperatures hovering just above zero provide an excellent test bed to ensure that all systems are functioning properly! Everything must be top notch as the trains will experience every possible type of weather in their three week journeys. After the preparations are complete, the Holiday Trains are ready to set out on their respective journeys. Traditional starting points have become Beaconsfield and Kahnawake, both in the Montreal area, for the Canada and US trains respectively.
Since the Holiday Train program first launched in 1999, it has raised $9.5 million and 3.3 million pounds of food for local communities. The designated charitable organization at each stop collects cash and food donations for local distribution. Each organization is the beneficiary of a CPR donation as well. CP asks that attendees bring a non-perishable food or cash donation, and all donations stay within the community in which they’re donated. Items like infant formula, canned meats, and spaghetti sauce are in particular demand for the millions of North American’s who turn to food banks each month. For many of the food banks, this one event represents the majority, or in some cases, their entire annual fundraising and is thus extremely important to the community as a whole, which is most appreciative of CP’s efforts.
A record of more than $2 million and 300,000 pounds of food was raised in 2013. As part of what was raised during this year’s Holiday Train, the Breakfast Club of Canada and Feeding America each received $250,000 from CP in support of their national programs.
An integral part of each community stop is the entertainment. At each of 150 stops the stage is lowered from the specially re-designed boxcar for a short but spirited show by the performers on board … often under rather adverse conditions … cold, snow, rain, etc! Crowds range in size from a few hundred to in excess of 25,000 for the signature shows. Other than the Signature Shows, the largest crowds are always at Cottage Grove, MN (Minneapolis) where crowds can range from 10,000 to 15,000 people with donations at this one stop ranging from $50,000 to 70,000! More typical are the small rural stops in both Canada and U.S. where seemingly the entire town shows up for “the” social/entertainment event of the year. It’s gratifying to see attendees, once toddlers themselves, now showing up as young adults to continue the tradition of giving! In 2013, the Canadian train featured Melanie Doane with special guests Doc Walker, Brothers Dubé, Crystal Shawanda, Jim Cuddy, and Matt Dusk. Of course, jolly old St. Nick is sure to make an appearance! From the train rolling to a stop to pulling away from the community averages 45 minutes! Santa can often be found waving to the crowd from the brass rail of the open observation area of the real car.
As 2013 represented the 15th year of the Holiday Train programme, three special signature events were held to celebrate the event and further raise awareness for hunger issues. Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Tom Cochrane with Red Rider, The Tenors, Great Big Sea, Matt Dusk, Natalie MacMaster and Take 6 took part in the special celebrations in Hamilton on November 30th, Calgary on December 7th and Cottage Grove (MN) on December 14th . Both Canadian venues were hosted by Peter Mansbridge.
After very successful tours in 2013, the Canadian train wrapped up its journey December 16th in Port Coquitlam, BC, while the U.S. train, after journeying across the U.S. Northeast and Midwest closed out its run December 19th in Weyburn, SK.
Special thanks to Kevin Hrysak, Canadian Pacific, for his contributions and thoughtful comments for and on this article.
Stephen Wray is Regional Vice-President of Yang Ming Shipping (Canada) Ltd., and is a noted railway aficionado and historian.