‘Holiday Express’ again delights riders

Find out why this East Portland traditional “ride into history” is a train ride like no other — and, if you want a ride, you’d better get tickets now

Days and evenings on the weekends at present, the huge and historic Southern Pacific #4449 locomotive powers “Holiday Express” excursions by the side of the Willamette River.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

Over four weekends, starting in late November, thousands of people arrive at the parking lot at Oaks Amusement Park – not to enjoy the carnival, but instead, to catch the “Holiday Express” and ride in historic railroad passenger cars, pulled by the Southern Pacific 4449, the only remaining operable “streamlined” steam locomotive of last century’s Art Deco era.

On a clear evening, one can hear the 6,500 horsepower #4449 locomotive at quite a distance, as it sounds its mournful steam whistle and chugs from Oaks Amusement Park, along Oaks Bottom to Portland’s Industrial Eastside, and back.

Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation Vice President Ed Immel and Oregon Pacific Railroad Company President and General Manager Richard A. Samuels are on hand to greet Holiday Express riders.

As one of the hourly excursions returned to the Oaks Park Station, riding the rails owned and operated by Oregon Pacific Railroad Company, the firm’s President, Richard Samuels, smiled as he watched the happy families disembark.

“It’s fun to see all the kids coming – and it’s really good to be able to share this with people who look like they really enjoy the experience,” Samuels told East Portland News.

“For us, it’s also a little nerve-wracking, because the 4449 locomotive weighs about three times more than one of our diesels; it’s hard on the track! We spent about a month tamping, adjusting, and evaluating the track, to make sure that it holds up under that weight,” Samuels confided.

The ride on the Holiday Express may be over, but happy memories will surely linger for years.

The very first year of these Holiday Express runs, the train departed from the then-unimproved site of the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, now built and open under the SE MLK Boulevard viaduct, recalled Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation (ORHF) Vice President Ed Immel.

“With parking being scarce in the area, and frequent delays in crossing the TriMet MAX Orange Light Rail Line, having the station at Oaks Park made more sense,” remarked Immel. “Here, the ramps are in place, there’s plenty of parking, and the folks here at Oaks Park are good people. We really enjoy working with them.”

Our interview was interrupted by the loud hissing sound due to the locomotive’s engineer “clearing the cylinders” and “blowing down the boiler” by opening valves to vacate the drive pistons of built up water, and expelling residue from the bottom of the boiler.

This year, some 150 volunteers signed up for duties ranging from hosting passengers on the train, to working in the station, and helping in the parking lot, Immel commented. “We love our volunteers and there certainly wouldn’t be a ‘Holiday Express’ without them,” he conceded.

As they disembark from their Holiday Express excursion Kim Nelson, holding Jack, and Andy Nelson, say goodbye to Santa Claus.

These excursions comprise the only fundraiser of the year for the nonprofit Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, Immel pointed out. “We don’t charge admission to the Center [typically open Thursday through Sunday], though donations we receive there help us keep the lights on.

“Right now, the emphasis is for our big next capital campaign – to put in [a roundhouse] turntable, and a second floor in the building. The turntable project, alone, is a $1 million project!”

At that point, another group of enthusiastic riders headed out of the station and up to the waiting train, ready for the unique Holiday train ride by the river – which includes a visit with Santa.

The last Holiday Express runs of the season are on Sunday, December 17. All trains load and depart from The Oaks Station, 7805 SE Oaks Park Way, 97202.

Buy your tickets online before you go; many of the trips are already sold out.

For more information about Rail Center, ORHF or the Holiday Express, see their website: CLICK HERE.

© 2017 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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