The Thomas Experience

by Bill McKelvey

What follows is a story of this writer’s experiences and impressions of one day, Sunday, 8 July, 2012, of the annual, two weekend, six day total,  “Day out With Thomas (and Friends)” Mystery on the Rails Tour on the Belvidere & Delaware River Railway (BDRV) at Phillipsburg, N.J.  In past years McKelvey did stories of the Thomas event in Buckingham, PA on the New Hope and Ivyland Railroad and the New York Susquehanna and Western Railroad Technical & Historical Society operation in Phillipsburg for the New Jersey Transport Heritage newsletter.  Another story described the full process of starting the boiler fire and gradually building up heat so as not to damage the boiler of NYS&W T&HS locomotive No. 142.  The only other Thomas event in New Jersey was on the Cape May Seashore Lines, but that was apparently not a success as it was never repeated.  The United Railroad Historical Society of NJ investigated having a Thomas event, but the only location they could come up with was the Princeton Branch of NJ Transit.  That would have required taking over their line for a total of six days, which would have been unacceptable.

My day began at Berkeley Heights with the loading of my Jeep to the brim with large logs I preferred not to cut and split for my wood stove home heating system - besides, as a result of the 2011 October snow storm I had an excess of wood.  The larger pieces, even unseasoned are desired by the NYS&W T&HS engineer / fireman, Gary Mathews as they burn slower and longer.  Small dimension wood burns too fast and fails to build up heat gradually.  And, besides, the more substantial sized wood can actually help to reduce the consumption of expensive soft coal.

Shortly after 7 am I arrived at the Carpentersville (Baer) Quarry storage / maintenance location of the NYS&W T&HS and observed the inspection, oiling and steam & air pressure buildup procedures for “Thomas” and the 142.  Dillon helped me unload the wood I contributed to their substantial reserve pile.

A combined safety meeting for the crews of both the Thomas and the Mine trains was begun at the quarry at 8 am.  BDRV General Manager, Kean Burenga (known as Thomas’s Sir Topham Hatt); and John Stocker, NYS&W T&HS President, & Crew Chief for the day, were the key presenters, but many others were very well versed in the safety rules.  The thoroughness and completeness of the review of the most applicable provisions of BDRV Timetable No. 3 and General Order # 305 was impressive.  Clearly, safety and the communication of the same is given the highest priority! 

Excessive temperature and humidity had made the two proceeding days real scorchers - brutal.  Some kinks in the heavy, 156 pound welded rail had developed due to heat expansion...  By Sunday evening, nearly one pallet (72 cases) of water had been consumed in the first three days.  One engineer had to be relieved on Saturday due to heat exhaustion.  Hearing that, reinforced the soundness of my earlier decision not to heed the call for volunteer locomotive firemen...

Locomotive No. 142 and the Thomas train departed the quarry shortly after 9am.  During the day Thomas made eight revenue round trips south from Lehigh Junction to the area of the I 78 bridge, and the Mine train made seven revenue round trips to the Mine.  By the end of the day I had memorized the Thomas song, jungle and story which was broadcast via speakers in each car...  Both trains made the deadhead move to the quarry and we were officially “off duty” shortly after 6 pm.  Crew members were well cared for during the day - coolers with iced water were in each car; each got 10 tokens redeemable for lunch at Lehigh Junction.  And, at the end of the day, all were treated to pizza (with bacon, sausage, pepperoni, or four cheese - 20 pies in total) and sodas.

Topping the day was the outstandingly spectacular Easton fireworks show, which we viewed from the Morris Canal Arch.  It was fired off just across the Delaware River from the original Canal Museum location at the junction of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers / Canals on the PA side.  My return home to Berkeley heights was about 11 pm - a mere 17 hour, but rewarding day...

The extreme heat and the continuing effects of the poor economy took their toll in slightly reduced train reservations.  However, there was little diminution in the enthusiasm of the children - a very large percentage of whom were wearing their Thomas shirts and hats.  We received many compliments of a job well done.  An executive of HIT Entertainment (owner of the Gullane - Thomas - trademarks), rode our Thomas train and was duly impressed. 

Again, I was most impressed with the smooth running of the entire operation which is a most complex logistics and staffing nightmare.  NYS&W T&HS Operations VP, Chris Cotty, is to be commended for his abilities manage this entire Thomas effort, including humongous advance preparations.  Yes, there were a number of the older, stalwart society volunteers, but it was extremely refreshing to see dozens and dozens of young, mostly local Phillipsburg area volunteers, many of whom had fire, police and or EMT experience.  And, a couple of the young ladies were absolutely lovely! 

Volunteers were everywhere: traffic control; parking attendants; drivers of three shuttle buses; gift / merchandise sales; the petting zoo; train crews; reservation pickups; ticket sales; supply garage; handicapped transport; electrical and mechanical maintenance; the imagination station; story telling; video viewing; Sir Topham Hatt; etc.; and last, but not least, cleanup.  It should be noted that food and drink; musical entertainment; and photography was handled by outside concessions.  At the end of the weekend all the temporary fire hoses had to be drained and repositioned on the borrowed fire truck; truckloads of merchandise and temporary electrical cable had to be returned to the secure garage; and the fire truck returned to the local fire company.  Overnight security is employed to watch over everything which can not be readily removed. 

This writer strongly recommends that each and every member of the directors of the United Railroad Historical Society, Friends of the NJ Transportation Heritage Center and Liberty Historic Railway volunteer for at least one day to help out with either the Thomas or Polar Express events in order to obtain first hand knowledge and experience of how these major public activities are a success.  Hopefully, it will help you-all to see a way forward to preserve New Jersey’s transportation heritage in one or more permanent centers or museums.  To do so will take much more than the efforts of a handful of dedicated and well-meaning enthusiasts.