'Holiday Train' delivers food, lights, and entertainment to crowds in the US and Canada

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Alan Doyle and Beautiful Band perform for the crowd gathered to see them and the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train at Mechanicville, N.Y., on Nov. 26.
Dan Kittay
The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train rests at Mechanicville, N.Y., during a recent stop. Two trains, similarly decorated with lights and decorations, travel the Canadian Pacific network each November and December collecting donations for food banks in community near the rights-of-way.
Dan Kittay
MENANDS, N.Y. — From towns of 900 people to large cities in the U.S. and Canada, each November and December, the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train continues its annual run to help combat hunger, and provide some entertainment along the way. The arrival of the train, decorated with glowing holiday scenes and writing, can be a big event for towns, and the food banks that serve them.

"We use it as our holiday event. We bring Santa Claus in, and give chili and hot cocoa away to people who bring a donation," says DeeAnn Bilben, a member of the Hankinson, N.D., Commercial Club, which coordinates the event in Hankinson. As with all other stops on the CP train's route, people are asked to donate a non-perishable food item or cash.

"We get a huge amount of items brought in. Combined with the cash donations, it's really a big deal for our community," Bilben says.

There's also a traffic impact on the town of 900 residents. Depending on which night of the week the train comes, and the weather that night, some of the streets can get clogged for hours before and after the train.

"Last year it came on a Friday night and the weather was warm. People came from two hours away. We probably doubled the size of our town that night," she says.

The train is scheduled to arrive at Hankinson on Saturday, Dec. 14.

There are actually two trains that make the trip each year. One goes through parts of Canada, and the other travels through the U.S. You can track their progress in real time on the CP website. The project has been running since 1999 and has gathered nearly $12 million in monetary donations and generated 4.5 million pounds of food in those 19 years. In 2018, the monetary donations were nearly $1 million, while people donated 200,000 pounds of food along the train's route.

A big part of preparing for the runs is installing the lights and decorations on the cars. Each year, the railroad tries to add some new decorations in with the ones it uses regularly, says says CP representative Andy Cummings. At each stop, there is also a short concert by country-music themed bands.

"CP works with a production company to identify and hire musical acts to play from the train’s stage early in the year," Cummings says. CP receives requests for the train to stop from communities along its routes, and "considers those requests with the goal of reaching as many people as possible as part of the fight against hunger."

One new stop on the schedule this year is the Village of Menands, N.Y., just north of Albany. The village has been asking for several years to have the train stop, says Village Clerk Don Handerhan. In 2018, CP agreed to have the train slow as it went through Menands, and that attracted more than 200 people.

The village prepared for this year's Nov. 26 stop with a full contingent of police and fire squads for traffic control and just in case anything went wrong. As it turned out, it was a "huge success. We had about 700 people, the weather was fantastic, and we had zero problems," Handerhan says. CP donated $1,000 to the local food bank, and the crowd donated another $200 plus helped fill a pickup truck with donated food.

Traffic was not an issue in the village of 4,000 residents, he adds.

"The train pulled in at 4:15, pulled out at 4:45, and by 5:30 everybody was gone," he says.

While the City of St. Paul, Minn., sees many large events over the course of a year, the Holiday Train visiting the Union Depot attracts a large crowd, and a large donation to local food banks, says Lindsay Boyd, the depot's marketing manager. As with other areas, weather plays a big role in attendance. In 2018 the train attracted 2,500 visitors, while in one recent year with better weather there were 7,500 people, Boyd says.

The train fits into the depot's "Hub for Holidays" theme, which includes a North Pole Express train and a holiday tree lighting ceremony. For this year's Dec. 10 stop, the depot used advertising in print, television, and through social media to promote the train and other events.
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