A Canadian Pacific Christmas Carol

Posted by Andy Cummings
on Thursday, December 9, 2010

Children dance and play in the snow during the Gurnee, Ill., show. Andy Cummings photo

Canadian Pacific invited me to spend yesterday evening on its Holiday Train from Bensenville, Ill., to Hartland, Wis. I’d never been to see the train before, so this was my first glimpse of what it’s all about.

The first thing you notice is the crowds. I can’t recall exactly what I pictured in my mind’s eye before the trip. Maybe it was 50 or 100 of the least winter-averse locals and their kids. They’d stand quietly, listening politely to the band, clapping, then filing back to their cars to start their engines and crank up the heat.
 
Turns out, not so much.
 
Kids were making snow angels, throwing powder into the air, and dancing. Ordinarily reserved Midwesterners were singing along. And the sea of people at each of the day’s three stops exceeded 1,000. At one stop, my host at Canadian Pacific, Mike LoVecchio, estimates 3,000, and I don’t doubt it.
 
CP’s Holiday Train is in its 12th year. It crosses the railroad’s system, stopping at communities along the route to raise donations for local food shelves. CP makes its own donation at each stop, local businesses make theirs, and the audience is invited to bring cash and food donations. Everything stays local.
 
As the train ascends the railroad’s C&M Subdivision through northern Illinois, Mike tells me a story. A reporter from Toronto’s Globe & Mail newspaper called last year, asking if the Holiday Train would be canceled on account of the economy. Mike assured him it wouldn’t, but the reporter was skeptical. “Can I get that on the record?” he asked. “I’ll do you one better,” Mike responded: an interview with Fred Green, the railroad’s CEO.
 
Green told the reporter he felt it was the railroad’s duty to operate the train. There’s a need, Green told him, so we have to be there to fill it. There was to be no equivocation. Christmas wasn’t taking the year off due to the recession, and neither was hunger, so why would CP?
 
“It makes you feel pretty good,” says Melanie Doane, a singer and fiddle player with the Holiday Train band. “It’s huge to have the added bonus that the show has a bigger meaning than just entertaining.”
 
Still, entertaining is a big part of drawing the crowds, which is necessary to the train’s mission. So Doane and her bandmates perform a raucous show, putting their own spin on Christmas favorites and adding their own creations. “Now More Than Ever,” by Holiday Train singer and bass player Adam Puddington, reflects on the needy. But the coolest version of “Run Run Rudolph” you’ve ever heard ensures nothing gets too heavy.
 
The music makes it easy to forget you’re seeing something quite unique: an outdoor concert in winter. Temperatures are above zero, but by the night’s final show, it isn’t by that much. And last year, Doane says, it was much colder. You can’t play fiddle or guitar with gloves on, and the musicians’ fingers get cold quickly. “Your fingers slow down in the cold,” she says, but the shows’ 30-minute durations help ensure relief is never too far off. Guitarist Anders Drerup says he stuffs his pockets with hand-warmers, and between songs, slips his fingers inside to thaw them out.
 
I ask the two musicians a question I’ve long pondered: Why do trains inspire so much music?
 
Anders begins: “Maybe because trains are awesome.” Good point, I concede.
 
Melanie waxes a bit more philosophical. “There’s the leaving, and there’s also the coming back,” she says. 
 
Anders: “And ‘train’ rhymes with everything.”
 
On the Holiday Train, these musicians are surrounded by the railroad environment. Melanie says it inspires her to write.  But atop the rolling stage on which they play, that isn’t necessarily an asset. “You really get upstaged by the train,” she says. “We’re eclipsed.”
 
That’s apparent from the locomotive cab. All along the route, people are lined up with cameras, and tiny flashes from trackside poke holes in the darkness, then fade away. The train crew makes sure to give a wave to each. Upon arrival at the train’s Hartland, Wis., stop, the size of the crowd takes my breath away. Gazing down from the locomotive cab into the sea of gathered humanity, it occurs to me that this train is a real-life celebrity. That’s what Melanie has to contend with when she takes the stage.
 
As the band plays its final set of the night, it occurs to me that the marriage of a train and Christmas is a child’s dream come true. I can see it on the faces of the kids who sit on the shoulders of their parents, and for a moment, I feel a tinge of sadness at the realization that the child’s sense of adventure and wonder must inevitably fade.
 
But it passes quickly. There’s too much to be thankful for today, and when the Holiday Train is in town, there’s no time to dwell on such things anyway. As quickly as it came, the brightly lit train departs and slips into the darkness, leaving a trail of blowing snow in its wake.

My hosts for the trip were (from left) Jeff Johnson, CP’s media relations contact in Minneapolis; Rick Tessman, CP’s Milwaukee-based road manager; and Mike LoVecchio, CP’s senior manager of media relations. Andy Cummings photo

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