With the spirit of Christmas and gift of giving in mind, Metro Jacksonville's Robert Mann shares his experience of being aboard the goal exceeding 2012 Florida East Coast Railway Toys For Tots Christmas Train.
The 2012 Florida East Coast Railway (FEC) Toys for Tots Christmas Train completed its annual trip from Jacksonville to Miami on Saturday, December 8, 2012, again distributing toys to representatives of the United States Marine Corps, for local Toys for Tots programs.
This year's goal of 1,000 toys for each stop was exceeded by 43%, allowing Santa Claus to deliver more than 1,430 toys to each location.
In only its third year, the Christmas Train has established itself as the premier fundraising event for the FEC Employees, Vendors and Suppliers donating over 11,000 toys to the communities we serve.
FEC is a 351-mile freight rail system located along the east coast of Florida and is the exclusive rail provider for Port Miami, Port Everglades, and Port of Palm Beach. FEC connects to the national railway system in Jacksonville, Florida, to move cargo originating or terminating there.
The train itself was made up of FEC Railway locomotive number 714, sparkling in the floodlights of this special morning, dressed in a new version of FECs classic red 1950s paint scheme. The EMD SD40-2 is a 3,000-horsepower (2,200 kW) C-C diesel-electric locomotive built by The Electro Motive Division of General Motors for the Chicago Northwestern Railroad, in November of 1976. Following the 714 was FEC Railway locomotive 434, the final GP-40-2 built by the EMD division of General Motors developing 3,000 horsepower it was built in December 1986 for the FEC.
A piggyback flat car, carrying a generator for the passenger cars, followed the locomotives. Next came two palatial business cars, The Azalea, and The St. Augustine, both recall halcyon days of private railroad cars. The round end observation lounge aboard the Azalea, was reminiscent of a sister car, The St. Lucie Sound, where I had the privilege of riding into history, being the last passenger to step off of an FEC train. Needless to say, Mr. Hertwig and I had some very interesting conversation. Another two flat cars followed the passenger cars, one containing two containers for toys and the other with a large semi trailer for the same purpose.
We boarded on the open platform observation end of the St Augustine, which was festooned with garland and Christmas lights. Once inside a safety meeting was held with the operations executives laying out the rules to those not normally aboard the trains.
The staterooms of the St. Augustine were used as storage space for a couple of thousand stuffed FEC RY bears to be given to children all along the route. The lounge area was the official balloon station and more then a dozen employees and their families were kept busy with the full time job of inflating helium balloons of red and green.
Further forward there was a stateroom for the FEC RY police who were aboard to assist with crowd control, security and coordination of an army of state, county and city police and fire departments and the United States Marine Corps.
This was the first year that MetroJacksonville has joined in such a wonderful program as the Marines Toys For Tots. We were rewarded with more then double the number of families coming out to the see the train or to donate to the program, see Mr. and Mrs. Santa, and for every little one a bear and a balloon. There were many familiar faces in the crowds at the first two stops.
Dress uniformed Marines were present at each stop to forward the toys to their local programs. "This is one example of FEC giving back to the communities where we live and operate," said Chief Executive Officer, Jim Hertwig, who with his wife Debbie, doubles as Mr. and Mrs. Santa.
When we rolled into the Avenue Walks railroad crossing, behind the Wal-Mart store there were easily 50-75 parents, children and Metro Jacksonville readers present. Some of the employees took advantage of the jolly moment and plopped down on Santa or Mrs. Santas lap. The bears and balloons were becoming a hot item and by the time the train pulled into the stop at St. Augustines San Sebastian Way, the crowd was well over 200.
As I detrained in St. Augustine, watching the faces of the children it transported me to my own childhood, the old Christmas Story, the gift of love and Marys equine transport. After some good wishes and dozens of photos, it was time for our train to head on to Miami. Two short blasts of an air horn and six thousand modern horses rumbled to life.
The donkeys and horses are no longer part of the equation, but there was a Spirit on that train that was tangible, we were, after all, here to celebrate the ultimate gift of life. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11.
Pre dawn loading in Jacksonville's Bowden Yard
The 714 pauses at Avenues Walk
Mr. and Mrs. Claus, detrain
Families representing the railway, Wal-Mart, MJ and the general public line up for photos
Employees got in on the Santa Act, the more venturous went to Mrs. Claus
A gift to Santa, from a Child at the Avenues Walk, a train ticket to San Francisco. This had a special meaning to Debbie as she is from Sonoma, CA.
Santa, hot and tired relaxing aboard the Azalea.
Standing here, your reporter relived a moment from 1968.
The Azalea, is a blast from the past.
The kitchen's in both cars stayed busy as the chef's laid out a banquet fit for a railroad nabob.
Dozens of balloons, hundreds, thousands, and bag after bag of railway bears are prepared aboard the St. Augustine
A very large crowd at St. Augustine as the children lined up to meet Santa.
Merry Christmas as the train rolled off toward New Smyrna Beach. Next year promises to be even better so plan on meeting me at train side.
Article by Robert Mann