Toys for Tots train serves kids, fans alike

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NS units lead the 2018 Toys for Tots Train.
Dan Kittay
The 2018 Toys for Tots Train attracted thousands trackside in New York State.
Dan Kittay
Marines unload the Amtrak baggage car on the 2018 Toys for Tots Train.
Dan Kittay
Stuffed animals are a staple of the Toys for Tots Train.
Dan Kittay
BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — "I need more teddy bears" is not a sentence you hear a lot, especially when a U.S. Marine says it. But it was part of the dialog as the 20th Annual New York Capital Region Toys for Tots train stopped in Oneonta on Saturday afternoon, as a crowd of about 200 children and parents waited for their chance to receive toys and clothing from the volunteers on the train.

For the railfans chasing the train, it was also another chance to photograph the privately-owned former Pennsylvania Railroad E8s that were making their likely final mainline run.

The 8-car, 4-locomotive train (Norfolk Southern 7030 and 7014 led the E8s) carried more than 40,000 toys, articles of clothing and boxes of cookies, says Marine Staff Sgt. Patrick Lurenz, who coordinates the annual project with Gunnery Sgt. Vinny Roman. In addition to the people who show up where the train stops, local not-for-profits who have ordered in advance pick up their deliveries from the train, so that they can distribute gifts to their clients.

The number of gifts distributed by the train account for only about 10 percent of what the group gives out each year, Lurenz says. Group organizers expect their work to benefit about 160,000 children this year.

The 125 volunteers on the train were very aware of the people chasing the train to photograph it, and also saw a number of drones photographing from above, Lurenz says.

Two of those fans were Mike Hovart of Binghamton and Brandon MacPherson of Sidney, who stood off to the side, cameras in hand. Hovart had been chasing the train since Binghamton, and says the train itself and the E8s made it worth the trip. "I chase everything I can," he says.

MacPherson, who says he learned railfanning from his father, remembers when the tracks, now owned by NS, were the property of Canadian Pacific, and that railroad would put an old Delaware & Hudson locomotive on the lead of the Toys for Tots train. The tracks were part of D&H when CP bought that railroad.

While putting together a train like this takes a lot of work even when everything works well, this year's version had extra complications. Amtrak, which had provided the equipment for the train in recent years, told Toys for Tots in August that it would not be involved this year, due to changes in how it deals with charter trains.

There was a lot of scrambling to find an alternative, until Lurenz and Roman got introduced to Bennett Levin, who owns the E8s and had been asked by an intermediary to get involved. [see "Toys for Tots train Saturday will be last for PRR E8s," Trains News Wire, Nov. 29, 2018]

Levin reached out to NS, which agreed to support the efforts. NS representative Stacey Mansfield says there were six NS volunteers on board, from as far away as Alabama, and numerous more throughout the organization who pitched in their time and effort to make sure the train would run. There was also coordination with other railroads to get all the equipment to New Jersey, where the train was assembled.

Levin, who was part of the group that left Binghamton at 6 a.m. Saturday and got back to their hotel at 11:30 p.m., says "everything was perfect." He had brought an electric train set with him that Bachmann Trains had donated to him for the ride. At one of the stops, a special needs child was in the crowd, and volunteers learned that the boy had said that he wanted a train set. They gave the set to the boy.

"He looked at the box, and turned it over and over looking at it, and he had a smile on his face. You knew you were doing God's work," Levin says.

As for whether he would get involved with next year's train, he says "I'm always available if I can add something of value."

Amtrak did ultimately get involved with this year's train as well, donating two baggage cars. Former President and CEO Joe Boardman, who had supported the train when he was in office, was on Saturday's train as a guest. He praised the efforts of the volunteers, and added "I would just like to share how much we appreciate the support of [NS CEO] Jim Squires, a first class corporate citizen."

The effort to deliver toys to counties north of the Capital Region will continue on Sunday, Dec. 9. A convoy of buses, trucks and police vehicles will head north from Saratoga to Rouses Point. In previous years the train would travel CP tracks on that route. The railroad declined to be involved this year, Lurenz says, so the group coordinated the convoy to deliver the toys to the not-for-profits along the route.
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