Forget the sleigh; Santa opts to use Amtrak in upstate New York this year

By Logan McLeod

This past weekend, it wasn’t sleigh bells the children in upstate New York were listening for. Oh no, this year Santa was arriving with the sound of whistles blowing. Sure, what you saw approaching in the distance was red, but it sure wasn’t Rudolph’s nose you were looking at. It was a Canadian Pacific GP-38-2 #7307 locomotive hauling an Amtrak Train with three baggage cars packed with over 1,000 bundles of collected toys, hats, food items, and assorted clothing for the good little boys and girls in upstate NY.

This marked the third consecutive year Amtrak and Canadian Pacific collaborated to run the 16th annual Toys for Tots holiday train through upstate New York, part of a 50-year tradition carried on by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. This is the 3rd year Amtrak was kind enough to donate the equipment and on-board personnel for the two-day trip along almost 350 miles of railroad.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to volunteer alongside the 20-plus Amtrak and Canadian Pacific employees, Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, and Navy volunteers, and one Metro North Superintendent named Freddy Chidester (or as I like to call him: “Freddy the Wise”). If you have a question about railroading, more than likely Freddy will know the answer. Most of these individuals were returning for their third year.

We began the trip early Saturday morning with a debrief from Amtrak’s Director of Operations, Brian Gallagher. Following a short “who’s who” and “what’s what” from Brian, USMC First Sgt. Ed Ackley roared: “Get on Board! We’ve got a job to do.” With that, our mission to serve the needs of underprivileged children began in earnest.

Saturday, we started in Binghamton and travelled all the way to Delanson, making four other stops along the way. At every stop volunteers were greeted with cheers and smiles as they passed out toys to families in need. The atmosphere was filled with joy as the kids received their toys from Santa and his helpers, sharply dressed in Marine blues. The Amtrak employees didn’t hesitate to pitch in, either. David Magill, Amtrak Locomotive Engineer from Albany, NY, brought bags donated by his neighbors, full of much-needed clothing to hand out. Others, like Steve Ostrowski, Amtrak Special duty Trainmaster (known to all as “Steve-O”), handed out homemade hats that he and others at Amtrak, led by Rose Ignari, had made in the weeks leading up to the trip.

It was remarkable to see all the lives Amtrak and others were able to impact in just one day. I wasn’t the only one who thought so, either. Congressman Chris Gibson (R-NY) also joined us on the train Saturday as it passed through his district, and delivered praise to Amtrak & Canadian Pacific for providing the means to distribute the gifts. He couldn’t thank the volunteers and Amtrak/CP enough for bringing gifts to those who might not have had any this Christmas if it weren’t for this special train.

Sunday morning rolled around and was time to set-off once again. This time we started in Albany and travelled up towards Rouse Point, situated on the Canadian border. The scenery on this route was spectacular and breathtaking—proving once again that rail is the best way to travel and see the beauty of the rural countryside. The highlight of the day was our stop in Saratoga, where we were greeted by 3 WWII Marine veterans from the Pacific theater of operations. The three were: CPL James A. Smith, Capt. Arnold Townsend, and Sgt. Raymond Gadoua. It was an honor to just be in the presence of these highly decorated Marines who fought to protect and defend this nation against our enemies oversees. They were joined by Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY) to take pictures with the volunteers, posing in front of the “America’s Railroad Salutes Our Veterans” locomotive. It’s a tableau that should be presented to every member of congress the next time they vote on whether to cut an Amtrak line or increase federal railroad subsidies. The U.S. Congress supports its troops, and the troops support Amtrak. Shouldn’t Congress show further support for the troops by supporting the preservation and expansion of Amtrak? I think so. Just makes sense, if you ask me.

I’d like to close by just saying thank you to all the Amtrak and CP volunteers, the men and women serving in our armed forces, Dunkin Donuts, and all the people responsible for putting together this spectacular event that serves a purpose much greater than anything you or I could imagine. It provided individual Americans with the ability to enjoy their holidays and be blessed with things so many of us take for granted.

It was truly a pleasure being a part of something so meaningful, and I thank Amtrak/CP for providing me this memorable experience. The people I met this past weekend are some of the most passionate individuals I have ever met. These Amtrak employees take pride in their job and I can say with confidence that they are dedicated to serving your needs as the passenger. So this holiday when you’re out traveling on the rails, thank your Amtrak crew for doing what they do. Let me be the first to tell you: it’s no easy task and they deserve every bit of the thanks.

As my buddy Johnny Hill would put it: I just dropped the “mother-load on y’all.” Or in the words of Gary Lachica: “Ba Bam!!”

Below is a list of all the CP and Amtrak volunteers:

Amtrak Employee Volunteers:

David Magill Locomotive Engineer

Justin Couture Locomotive Engineer

William Sternitzke Locomotive Engineer

Glenn Seymour Conductor

Tim Blakey Conductor

Anthony Fruci Conductor

Gary Lachica Electrician

Mike Lasusa Electrician

Johnnie Hill On Board Service

Angela Nesel Yardmaster

Brett Vincent Empire Division Safety Facilitator

Thomas Miskell Amtrak Police Officer

Steve Ulrich Amtrak Detective

Mike Smith Amtrak Detective

Steven Ostrowski Special Duty Trainmaster

Richard Carroll Road Foreman of Engines

Rose Igneri Mechanical Administrative Assistant

Kevin Chittenden Superintendent of Operations

Lisa Hubbard Assistant Superintendent of Operations

Jay Green District Manager of Stations

Andrew Pelletieri Assistant Station Manager

Brian Gallagher Director of Operations-Office of the President

Canadian Pacific Employees:

Chance Dreisbach Locomotive Engineer

Tom Whalen Locomotive Engineer

Steve Parsons Conductor

Josh McKenzie Conductor

Kristan McMahon Road Foreman of Engines

Jacob Kinne Trainmaster

Michelle Malski Trainmaster

Louis Vagliardo Mechanical Foreman

Jim Thomas Claims Agent

Tony Stillittano Labor Relations Manager

Marc Drouin Intermodal Manager

Ryan Martin Transportation

Jackson Barnett Transportation

Dennis Symanski CPR Police

Mike Tracy CPR Police

NARP’s 28,000 members appreciate all that you do and thank you for your willingness to volunteer your time and talent to such an important cause. From all of us at NARP: have a wonderful holidays and a happy New Year!