Was 2015 business as usual? Yes – and hardly. If the business of mainline steam can be summed up in the safe and enjoyable experiences of several thousand men, women and families behind our living time machine, then the 765 punched the clock. While the 765 and her crew have experienced long hauls and lengthy trips, something about 2015 felt much like a marathon.
The News-Sentinel covered the ever increasing challenges – and rewards – in operating the 765:
The 765 was active the majority of the weekends it was gone, including three straight in July and early August beginning with the Wabash Cannonball trip from Fort Wayne to Lafayette. Lynch said that that grueling schedule of back-to-back-to-back weekends will likely not be repeated in future excursion seasons. While the locomotive itself operates better the more it is run, the strain on engine and train staff, many of whom are volunteers, was substantial.“One weekend is a touchdown, two weekends is even better, but by the end of the third weekend many of the volunteers are just looking for the next day to sleep in,” Lynch said. “It really takes a small army to operate the 765.”
Lynch said that the entire operation this excursion season included a core group of between 25-30 people, from engineers and locomotive maintenance crew to managers, directors and passenger car hosts.The core group was complemented by other volunteers who join the “traveling circus” for a weekend or two here and there at various stops and geographical regions as their schedules allowed.
On February 4th, the City of Fort Wayne and its consultant SWA Group revealed the master plan for the 700 acres of downtown riverfront. As part of the first phase of enhancements, SWA has recommended the inclusion of Headwaters Junction, a railroad tourist attraction featuring the collection and operations of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society (FWRHS), including historic steam locomotive no. 765.
“We believe that Headwaters Junction would be a catalyst for the riverfront and activate the entire area with the draw of this famous train. People come from all around the world to experience the 765 and now they’ll able to do it along the riverfront,” said Todd Meyer, Director of Planning and Urban Design for SWA.
The inclusion of Headwaters Junction follows several years of planning and community input, wherein Headwaters Junction was endorsed by Legacy Fort Wayne as “big, bold, and transformational.” The plan has consistently ranked highly among the community since 2011 and was recently included among the top ten riverfront improvement priorities.
Initial plans call for Headwaters Junction to include a recreated roundhouse, a once-common structure in Fort Wayne that served many of the community’s railroads. The roundhouse would be used for restoring and maintaining historic equipment and include a turntable, small railroad yard, and interpretive facility for display and exhibition, as well as a mixed use venue for private and public events. Visitors will be able to take rides, tour the facilities and participate in hands-on activities, and even operate real-life trains. Additionally, educational outreach programs targeting young adults would be offered, allowing high school students the opportunity to learn welding and preservation skills, as well as experience working on a railroad.
“The 765 and the railroad tourism industry provides a very unique kind of emotional experience for visitors and passengers. Trains are a romantic, sensory attraction,” said Kelly Lynch, Communications Director for the Railroad Historical Society. “We are thrilled that SWA and the City of Fort Wayne have recognized the potential in these incredible community assets breathing life to the riverfront.”
“For the same reason that you don’t need to be a sports fan to enjoy a night at Parkview Field, you don’t necessarily need to be a lover of history or trains to enjoy the sights, sounds, and atmosphere of Headwaters Junction,” said Lynch.
The Railroad Historical Society would utilize Headwaters Junction to expand its present operations, events, and annual programming. An adjoining railroad right-of-way would be reactivated for tourist train service with annual programming that would include events like dinner trains, the Polar Express and others throughout the year. Additional images, videos, renderings, and information are available at headwatersjunction.com.
Regional excursions behind the 765 could depart from the location at Harrison Street. The attraction would also house other historic railroad locomotives and equipment, including another steam locomotive, which are conceived to also operate on the railroad line.
Early estimates see at minimum 100,000 additional visitors downtown and an estimated economic impact of 9 million dollars from operations and out-of-town visitors each year. Comparable attractions earn anywhere from 100,00 – 400,000 visitors each year.
Total cost for the entire riverfront plan is estimated at 200 million dollars, with projections for the construction of Headwaters Junction ranging between 10-20 million depending on its final scope.
Headwaters Junction and the riverfront project as a whole will require significant public-private partnerships. As of this writing, the Society is exploring opportunities with potential corporate sponsors. In the past, the organization has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the restoration and maintenance of railroad equipment like no. 765 through donations, grants, and strategic partnerships.
Recently, the organization’s annual Santa Train operations hosted 3,500 passengers in 16 hours. The Society’s excursions behind no. 765 are often filled to capacity, with its 2013 trips out of Fort Wayne selling out in less than two hours. During the 2014 Three Rivers Festival, no. 765 brought several thousand passengers from Detroit to Fort Wayne. Among the riders were passengers from South America, England, Canada, Texas, and California.
In recent years, the 765 has been the centerpiece at events that have drawn crowds of up to 40,000 people. Currently, Norfolk Southern Corp., and the Society partner regularly to operate passenger excursions and employee appreciation trains throughout the railroad’s 22,000 mile system.
The Society plans to pursue a dedicated feasibility study for the project in 2015 and plans to announce its excursions season with no. 765 sometime this spring.
The renderings featured below are conceptual in nature and provided for conversation and illustration.
Final scope, arrangement, placement, and neighboring structures are to be determined.
UPDATED 12/9/12: The Santa Train has enjoyed additional news coverage.
WANE-15’s coverage of the 2014 Santa Train underscores its long tradition in the community.
The Journal Gazette followed up on its original December 5th report with this story and video:
A chance to have a chat with Santa Claus in a big, red caboose while chugging down the railroad tracks continues to be one of the hottest holiday season events around Fort Wayne. For 16 years, the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society has been arranging the short trips at its headquarters on Edgerton Road in New Haven, but the society has made it a little more convenient this year. In the past, people wanting to take the trips, which last from 20 minutes to half an hour and take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the three Saturdays before Christmas, have ridden on a first-come, first-served basis.
The result was sometimes incredibly long lines and long waits.This year, though, the public was able to make reservations online for specific times, dramatically shortening lines and waiting time. The public response was strong. In just 16 hours, the society sold out all the seats on all three Saturdays, said Kelly Lynch, a member of the society.
The society did set aside about 20 tickets an hour to accommodate walk-ins without reservations. There were a handful of walk-ins who managed to grab spots in line and take the ride after a short wait.
“We still get 3,000 people in the middle of a cornfield,” Lynch said of the spot where the rides take place.There is a proposal to relocate some of the society’s engines downtown. “These are 3,000 people that could be downtown,” Lynch said.
The Journal Gazette reported on our improvements to the Santa Train:
If there’s one thing that the Santa Train has been known for – outside of being a local holiday favorite – it has to be the wait time. Last year, 3,000 passengers lined up on a first-come, first-served basis over three consecutive Saturdays. Kelly Lynch, communications director for the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, says at its most severe, the wait was about three hours.
This year, the organization introduced an online ticketing system to cut that down. Lynch says 75 tickets are sold online for each hour of operation, plus 30 to 40 tickets sold for each hour to walk-in customers. “We felt like we could control the experience a little bit better for passengers if they could select their time versus showing up whenever,” he says…It’s really important to us that people have a good experience – and that they have a pleasant experience, even with the anticipation of the train and getting on board.”…
Even at the New Haven warehouse where the locomotive is stored, and where the Santa Train takes off on a quarter-mile excursion, the organization has been able to draw attention to Headwaters Junction, Lynch’s proposal for the city’s Legacy Fund. It would be a rail-themed attraction that could connect the city’s riverfront, trails and railways together with the historic steam locomotive as a key aspect.
Lynch says the Headwaters Junction team is waiting for the riverfront master plan to be released in February before announcing anything major, but if the train is moved downtown, he says that one idea would be to push the concept of Santa Train into a larger experience as Fort Wayne’s own “Polar Express” steam locomotive rolling through downtown for the holidays.
“I think the Santa Train proves that with our limited resources, our limited track and our limited accessibility in New Haven, we’re still able to put 3,000 people on a train in 16 hours,” he says.
“There’s a tourist railroad in Connersville, Indiana, and they’re about to do 10,000 people in the next couple of days. With a few more passenger cars, a little longer route and a better location, we could easily do twice as much or three times as much as that,” he says.
“That’s 10,000 to 20,000 people downtown that may not normally be there.”
Press coverage of steam locomotive no. 765 in her hometown was at an all-time high during the Wabash Cannonball trips, with multiple newspapers and television stations covering the historic journey of the locomotive and train.
The locomotive appeared on the front page Fort Wayne’s two local newspapers, a daily paper in neighboring Auburn, Indiana, and each major television news station spent time spreading the news of the sell-out excursion train, and covered the impact of the train on its passengers and in the towns near the route. For links to stories and videos, read on.