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A Day Out With Thomas
By Peter Wine

Reprints of this article come printed on quality paper with high resolution pictures

The Whitewater Valley Railroad played host this weekend (June 21, 2003) to Thomas the Tank engine. This is the third year that Thomas has visited the Whitewater Valley in Connersville, Indiana. 

A phenomenon. That’s one way to describe the ability of a little blue engine from across the pond to attract children from as far away as Canada to a little town in Indiana.

A check at the ticket counter around 11am showed that the magic of Thomas was working. All of the days advance tickets had been sold, and they had added another coach to allow for walk-in ticket buyers. They also added an extra run in the evening to be sure everyone got a chance to spend time on the Thomas train.

In order to ensure that the day with Thomas would go smoothly, the Whitewater Valley rented another engine, JTPX 1551, as a backup. It looked and sounded so good, the decision was made to use the rental as the primary, and save their own engine as a backup. (Since they were paying for it anyway…) 

Angie Morefield is another volunteer who is passionate about trains. Angie was able to ride the 1551 on Friday, and says it “rides like it's on glass,” with a gentle sway instead of the more noticeable rocking motion of some engines. Angie says this is because it uses road trucks instead of switching trucks. She says the engine also has a higher center of gravity than some engines. Well, it was almost impossible to get a picture of the engineer, since he was so high off the ground.

Why does the Whitewater Valley need another engine with Thomas in town? It’s because Thomas isn’t used to pulling this many people, and needs a little assistance. The coaches are not only bigger than they appear to most people, (it takes as much paint to cover a coach as it does some houses,) they are also a lot heavier. The coach I rode in had a 4-inch concrete floor. That should help you appreciate the weight Thomas had to pull.

From the time Thomas woke up (when engineer Brian Lavelle took his cover off,) to the time they put him to bed, Thomas was a cordial fellow. Whenever he came back from a trip, he would stop to pose for pictures. If you didn’t have a camera, there was a booth that would sell you your picture with Thomas.

The professional sounding announcer on the train was in reality Bill Eccles, another Whitewater Valley volunteer. I asked him how he was able to remember it all. He says he listened to the CD and began relating the information to the passengers. Sounds simple, right? Well, they do it so well; Whitewater Valley is the only railroad that brings Thomas to visit allowed to do it this way. The others are required to use the CD.

Leroy Swihart is another volunteer brakeman on the railroad. I asked him if the Thomas train was run differently than their normal trains. He says it’s pretty much the same, though “they use more brakemen, so they can have one per coach.” Like many of the others, Leroy has dreams of becoming an engineer on the Whitewater Valley. He admits, “it’s a long list.”

In addition to the Thomas train, Whitewater Valley also ran their Caboose train. It’s unusual today to see a caboose at all on a train, and here were five on a single train! 

How do they use two trains on the same track? The railroad put together a ballet-like choreography to allow the trains to work together.

It works, because there are two tracks available down by the Whitewater Valleys workshop. (It used to be their depot, until the city of Connersville donated the real depot to them, in exchange for the ability to hold meetings in the building. This also gave the railroad another caboose, since the Lions club had been using a purple one as their meeting place.) One track is called the main line, and the other is a passing siding.

At the station, the Caboose train is further away than Thomas. So, first, Thomas would load up, and back down the track. Then the caboose train would pull onto the passing siding, and wait for Thomas to come back on the mainline. Then the Caboose train would move onto the mainline for its trip. Since it goes farther than Thomas does, Thomas has a few minutes to board passengers and begin another trip out and back while the Caboose train is gone.

On it’s way out, Thomas also uses the passing siding, so the Caboose train would come back on the main line, while Thomas is going out on the passing siding, and the caboose train could get back to its original position at the station. Then Thomas comes back, and the ballet starts over again.

Jack Turn, one of the many volunteers at the Whitewater Railroad, says that it’s all part of developing “a living museum.” In operation since 1984, the Whitewater Railroad is almost entirely made up of volunteers. “Except the secretary,” Jack said. The money from this weekend goes “for reconstructing our equipment,” or is “put back into infrastructure.” What’s a living museum? It’s a place where you go to see trains working instead of a static display.

But it’s not all about Thomas, or about trains. “Day Out With Thomas” is a also celebration; a way to retreat to a simpler time, and enjoy a day by yourself, or with your family. If the magic of being close to Thomas the Tank or the Caboose train didn’t strike your fancy, there were plenty of other things to do. 

There was also a miniature golf course, the Indiana University’s calliope, Roadway Express’ semi-truck and trailer, Thomas the Tank balloons, temporary tattoos, jumping tent, lots to eat and drink, a complete gift shop, mini-race cars to sit in, a breast feeding station, and the imagination station. 

Wilbur Sumney operates The Pumpkin Vine Express, which uses a lawn tractor in costume as an engine. The cars are made from 55-gallon drums. He has connected several in a row, with each car in the train just big enough for a single child. Each car comes complete with it’s own seat belt, which is tested for correct fit before each train departs. It’s also very popular, and had long lines all day.

Jack Carter and the Delaware Rangers took part in the festivities with their stagecoach and portable jail cell. (Does their business card say “Have jail, will travel”?) They posed in front of both, and Jack spent much of the day in jail. Something about a bank robbery got him in trouble. He had lots of company. 

Children and adults alike were rounded up, one at a time, given a quick trial and tossed in the cell. After a quick photo, the offender was released to begin a new life. They went so far as to arrest a local vendor for “sour lemonade,” but it became apparent they were more likely after the round of cold lemonade they received after the photos.

The Delaware Rangers are no strangers to the Whitewater Valley Railroad. They provide the entertainment of a ‘hold-up’ on some of the trips. I jokingly said, “what do you do with the proceeds,” and Jack replied, “donate it to the club fund.” Its needed, as the Delaware Rangers do a lot of traveling to shows and festivals. At one point, the Rangers got so busy, they were scheduled every week. But that was too much, and they scaled back a bit. Jack says, “it got to be more like a job.”

One of the few complaints reported to me involved the painting of one of the coaches used on the Thomas train. It came via Terry Hreno, who was helping to sell Thomas balloons (at a brisk pace, I’m told.) Terry said he explained to them that each coach needs as much paint as a typical house. It seems that the coaches are a lot bigger than they look. If you want to help paint, get in touch. They’d love your help. Remember, all of this happens because of volunteers.

Late in the day, Jack Turn led me on a quick tour through the Whitewater Valleys work yard. This is where they keep items belonging to volunteers, and equipment they are working to get ready to go back to work. Jack told me that Thomas’ visits have allowed them to improve the equipment and infrastructure on the railroad, but it’s evident there’s a lot of work left to do (One real tank engine is painted on the side that shows to the public, but not on the other side.) He says they get some money from the grants, and some from loans, and are doing the best they can to make things work smoothly, and look good.

It all came together as a nice package. Thanks Thomas, for coming to the area!

Thomas will return again in June 2004 to the Whitewater Valley Railroad, so click here for the info!

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