Santa Claus passed through Downers Grove last weekend, but he wasn’t riding a sleigh. Instead, he chose to travel from Downers Grove to Chicago on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co.’s fleet of restored, vintage railroad cars.
The special train — known as the Holiday Express — is traveling through different areas of the country this month carrying military veterans and their families (and Santa Claus). The idea is to honor military veterans while giving their families the opportunity to do something special together.
The train had already visited St. Paul, Minn., and La Crosse, Wis., before coming to Downers Grove on Sunday.
“We wanted to get a ride (through) the beautiful Chicago area and Downers Grove worked well for people to be able to come get on the train there,” said BNSF spokeswoman Amy Mcbeth.
The train ride was a chance for military men and women to meet or reconnect.
“I just knew it was a train ride somewhere,” said Crystal Porters, of Woodridge, who is a Sgt. 1st Class with the Army National Guard. “It allows other soldiers to meet other soldiers in the area… and their families and their kids.”
Before the train left Downers Grove, Porters said she saw an old military friend from another unit.
“He saw me first and yelled out my name,” she said.
Kyle and Renee Waller, of Pekin, were on the train with their two sons. At a seat across from them was another military family with whom they are friends. This was the first real train ride the Waller family had ever taken together.
“There’s two other families (we are friends with) here too, they’re on other cars,” said Renee Waller. Jeremy Dugena, of Batavia, was dressed in camouflage fatigues as he walked from car-to-car speaking with families. Dugena works with the National Gaurd’s Yellow Ribbon program, which was responsible for getting the word out to veterans about the train ride.
“We had 370 seats that were available for service members and their families and we filled all 370 for them,” Dugena said.
For some of the families, many of whom were not from the immediate area, it was the first time their children had been on a train.
“People drove for hours to get here,” Dugena said.
The ride was relatively short. It left Downers Grove at 4 p.m., and went through the western suburbs before it stopped somewhere in Chicago, where a view of the skyline could be seen in its full brilliance.
Along the way, Santa Claus walked from car-to-car taking photos with the families.
Roger Nober, executive vice president of law and secretary with BNSF, said the company brings out the Holiday Express each year because honoring military families is the right thing to do.
“I think we’ll keep it up. … We like showing off the railroad and we know the hardships that military families suffer, particularly when it comes to deployments and things. We use our foundations to give some money to charitable foundations (that help military families). ... For the foreseeable future we’re going to keep it up because we enjoy doing it ... A lot of our employees volunteer to be on this,” Nober said.
When the train returned to the Belmont Train Station in Downers Grove its antique cars, classy, big, gray and historic, stretched from one end of the station to the other. The families began to exit one by one and step out into the crisp December air. There and then, U.S. Reps. Dan Lipinski, D-3rd District, and Judy Biggert, R-13th District, delivered speeches about the importance of recognizing veterans.
The BNSF was donating $20,000 to Illinois organizations that provide support to military members and their families.
Some of the families stayed to listen. News cameras and their bright lights added to the visual drama of the spectacle.
Other families moved on, carrying their children on their shoulders or holding their hands as they returned to their cars. The temperature had dropped significantly since the train first departed. Some of the children howled or cried — maybe they were over tired, maybe they were coming down from the sugary hot chocolate or maybe they were just upset that the night was over.
Nober, who had been walking from car to car during the train ride, said he had met many of the families on the train.
“The kids are all saying its their first time on the train and the parents say they’re here because they really wanted to take the kids on a train, but really it’s because a lot of the moms and dads wanted to come on, too,” Nober said.
From Downers Grove, the special train moved on to North and South Dakota and then to Kansas where more families would be waiting for the Holiday Express.