It Takes a Village: Plenty of Work Goes into Making Holiday Train a Reality

By WIll Reisman, @WillReisman

Caltrain’s annual Holiday Train event may take place over the course of only one weekend, but the work to prepare for the undertaking is a year-round commitment and involves contributions from dozens of people—both employees at the rail agency and some much-appreciated volunteers.

This year marks the 12th edition of the Holiday Train, with the festive train set to make its way from San Francisco to Santa Clara December 6 and 7. While on its journey, the train, festooned with thousands of lights and decorations, will make stops at various stations along the Peninsula, where costumed characters like Santa Claus and Frosty will join a host of performing arts groups in entertaining crowds reveling in the holiday spirit. In partnership with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Caltrain has helped distribute nearly 50,000 donated gifts to needy families as part of the Holiday Train program.

Although the entire schedule of the Holiday Train weekend lasts just nine hours, as soon as this year’s event is finished, planning for the 2015 season will begin.  The project managers in charge of the Holiday Train begin mapping out the basic details of the endeavor, making note of best practices and what can be done to improve the weekend-long celebration. Review meetings begin in January and last throughout the spring.

In June, the project manager for the Holiday Train begins delegating tasks, assigning employees to start working on different initiatives. Those include finding corporate sponsors to help underwrite the campaign and provide in-kind donations, identifying potential media partnerships, seeking out volunteers to help decorate the trains and act as costumed characters, and solidifying entertainment groups to perform for the crowds. Caltrain employees and workers from Transit American Services Inc. (TASI), the private contractor that operates the train, collaborate on an array of different projects.

While the groundwork for the Holiday Train is laid during the summer months, the efforts start to amplify in the fall. Starting on the first weekend in October, agency workers and volunteers assemble at the San Francisco Caltrain Station every Saturday to decorate the Holiday Train. More than 70,000 lights and decorations are carefully affixed to the Holiday Train, an enterprise that entails plenty of man hours and careful concentration. The activity of decorating the train also requires volunteers to undergo safety training  to ensure that they display best practices while working on a live railroad. The volunteers and workers set aside six hours each Saturday, rain or shine, to guarantee that the Holiday Train is bejeweled in time for the first weekend of December.

In November, planning meetings for the Holiday Train increase to weekly occurrences, where employees give updates on assorted issues and topics related to the event. When the big weekend finally arrives, the cast of people involved in the project grows even wider, as ambassadors volunteer at each Caltrain station to help coordinate entertainment and provide information for the assembled crowds.

Running a specially-decorated train making irregular stops during normal service hours is an ambitious venture, but in the end, the Holiday Train is a completely worthwhile effort for all those involved. The holidays only come around once a year, and seeing the crowds of appreciative families gather around the train to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus or hear a Christmas carol sung by a local chorus is a pretty special incentive for everyone at Caltrain.

For more information about the Holiday Train, including information on how to donate toys, visit www.holiday-train.org.

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