Discussion related to commuter rail and transit operators in California past and present including Los Angeles Metrolink and Metro Subway and Light Rail, San Diego Coaster, Sprinter and MTS Trolley, Altamont Commuter Express (Stockton), Caltrain and MUNI (San Francisco), Sacramento RTD Light Rail, and others...

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The Mercury News wrote:Posted on Thu, Nov. 30, 2006

2006 Holiday Train ready for its run
By Joe Rodriguez
Mercury News

When railroad enthusiast Ross Peterson talks about decking out this weekend's Caltrain Holiday Train, he sounds like the designer of a Tournament of Roses float.

``Only this is a lot harder.''

Caltrain's Christmas caravan won't be as artistic or as fragrant as a flowery float when it rolls down the Peninsula this weekend, but it'll pack a lot more juice and sound.

Instead of gluing rose petals onto lightweight frames, Peterson and his assistants recently wired 40,000 colorful lights to two multi-ton Caltrain coaches, two flatcars and a caboose.

Instead of stringing together strands of green moss, Peterson's crew stitched together about two miles of electrical wire carrying 60,000 watts.

``We're talking about enough power for 10 houses on an average night,'' Peterson says.

And while most parade floats carry a few passengers, the holiday train will carry about 130, including a brass band, singers, stage hands, elves in costume, Frosty, Rudolph and a jolly Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus.

The result is an old-fashioned Christmas, albeit one on steel wheels and powered by diesel.

``I liken it to the old village gatherings at Christmas,'' he says. ``You think about the shopping malls and picture-taking with Santa, but that's not bringing the community together. When people show up with their kids to meet our train, they're singing. It's the community coming together.''

Caltrain's sixth annual holiday train will pull into select stations from San Francisco to Santa Clara on Saturday and Sunday for free 20-minute shows. At each stop, the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program and the Salvation Army will collect unwrapped toys and books for needy children. Last year's holiday train collected nearly 6,000 gifts.

When Caltrain decided to jazz up its rather mundane holiday train several years ago, the agency asked the Golden Gate Railroad Museum for help. The commuter train service selected Peterson, a museum volunteer and commercial bakery installer with ``a knack for powerhouse logistical challenges.'' He is also a general contractor, amateur radio operator and someone who knows a thing or two about showmanship.

One of the first major challenges he faced wasn't technical. It was a lack of space. The crowds greeting the holiday train at local stations were elbowing the musicians and singers off the platforms.

``Well,'' he said, ``we decided to bring the entertainers on board.''

For the second run in 2002, Peterson and Caltrain found two surplus Navy flatcars and turned them into rolling stages with spotlights, microphones and amplifiers.

But that created a new problem. Because the train would carry a complete entourage of entertainers and stage technicians, federal rules required that a train conductor be on board -- a fully credentialed one. Again, Peterson stepped up and became one.

What started as a favor has turned into a big annual production. Peterson's volunteer crews begin the preparations in October and usually work through the Thanksgiving weekend.

Why does he do it?

``When the train is pulling out of the station and you look back and see all those people cheering and smiling,'' he explained, ``that's why I do it.''

Contact Joe Rodriguez at [email protected] or (408) 920-5767.
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