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Holiday Express chugs on

by: DAVID F. ASHTON - Chugging slowly to a stop after dark at the Oaks Park Station, its the City of Portland-owned historic steam locomotive, the Spokane Portland & Seattle #700.The steam whistle of the mighty Spokane Portland & Seattle #700 locomotive creased the cold night air, as it chugged along the Willamette River through Oaks Bottom. The Holiday Express train rides had begun their brief season, on the evening of November 29.

This year, it’s that 5,000 horsepower 1938 steam locomotive, the SP&S #700, that’s pulling the historic passenger rail cars from Oaks Park to the Oregon Heritage Rail Museum near OMSI and back.

Standing outside the large, heated reception tent set up in the historic Oaks Amusement Park parking lot, Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF) Vice President Ed Immel – who represents the Northwest Rail Museum – looked on approvingly.

“The first year, we started these rides near OMSI. The parking wasn’t very good, and the grounds were muddy,” recalled Immel. “This is the ideal place! Almost like it was designed to support the Holiday Express excursions. We have a paved lot, free parking, a warm tent for passengers – and a safe place for folks to safely see the locomotive in action.”

A life-long resident of the area, Immel said he has but a short commute to the Holiday Express depot – he lives near Sellwood Park.

Based on rider polls, Immel said. “About a quarter of the people who come, tell us they’re new to the experience. We love to see their smiles; they seem to be really enjoying themselves when they disembark from the train.”

And, about 70% of those new riders rode as a result of a direct referral from a friend.

“Riders, especially parents with kids, say the 45-minute trip is long enough to get a good experience, but short enough not to bore children. Santa Claus rides the trains, and ‘winds up’ the youngsters a little bit during the ride.

“We keep hearing, ‘What a nice Holiday experience this is! You don't have to use up a whole day or a whole evening to do this’.”

The maximum of 210 adult riders on each trip enter the train through the boxcar, decorated with wrapped Christmas gifts and a tree; the cars are cheerfully decked out with lights.

More than 200 volunteers put on the festive train ride, rotating positions over the three long weekends, that ended on December 15th this year.

“Our volunteers come from all over, including a couple from California, and a lady from Olympia, Washington,” Immel commented. “Many our ‘car host’ volunteers who staff the rides are affiliated with the HYPERLINK "www.nrhs.com/" National Rail Historical Society.

Most people buy their tickets online, through Tickets West, Immel said. “But, as many as 30% of the ticket sales occur while the riders are boarding the train. We have a little overflow room in the Mt. Hood car, so we rarely disappoint anyone who just stops by for a ride.”

All of the funds raised from the annual Holiday Express rides go to help pay down the property loan for the Oregon Rail Heritage Museum, recently opened to the public near OMSI.

And finally, Immel expressed appreciation for the man who owns the tracks on which the Holiday Express runs. “Dick Samuels of Oregon Pacific Rail Road is great to work with; he is such a big supporter of what we do.”

To learn more about the Oregon Heritage Rail Museum, open year ’round, visit their website: www.orhf.org.