Train museum revives Polar Bear Express on different set of tracks

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The Noblesville-based Indiana Transportation Museum recently lost a court battle that would have allowed it to bring back the annual State Fair Train and Polar Bear Express rides from Hamilton County to Indianapolis.

But the museum has found a new route for the Polar Bear Express. Beginning Nov. 24, it began offering the train excursions traveling to and from Kokomo and Logansport. The trips will continue on various dates through Dec. 23.

The Polar Bear Express started in 1995 as a holiday fundraiser for the museum, running along the Nickle Plate Railroad tracks from Fishers to near the Indiana State Fairgrounds. It was discontinued after 2015 following disputes between the museum and the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority.

The authority, the quasi-government entity that oversees the railroad, terminated its policy-of-use agreement with the museum in March 2016 amid concerns about the not-for-profit’s financials and maintenance of the tracks. Noblesville and Fishers now plan to convert a 9.2-mile section of the rail path into a pedestrian trail, likely dooming train travel along the corridor.

About 11,000 passengers took the Polar Bear Express excursion in 2015.

Crowds of people, many with small children, lined the train track in Kokomo on Sunday afternoon, waiting for the Polar Bear Express to bring them some early Christmas cheer.

"The funds we generate off of events like this are often what allow us to fulfill our mission, and run the railroad, maintain the trains, save antique railroad equipment, railroad artifacts, things like that so the people of Indiana can enjoy them," said Cameron Nichols, board of directors member for the museum.

"Our mission as a nonprofit is to engage and inspire future generations about the science, the art and the technological innovation of the railroad," he added, saying the museum is home to one of the largest collections of railroad equipment in the state.

Getting the annual event up and running for the 2017 season wasn't without its challenges. One of the conductors, Aaron Hutchinson, explained they're using this year's train for the first time this season. Time constraints and a few other factors wouldn't allow the train used in past years to be moved to the necessary track. So, this year's train was rented from Chicago.

The cars were vandalized while in a Chicago railyard, said Hutchinson. Some received unwanted spray paint, and copper wiring was stolen, halting the flow of electricity.

So it's been a learning curve, and one that required some details to be ironed out, but Hutchinson said it's been going better with each run on the train.

"All in all, I think this will be a great event," he said.

On board, passengers are seated in one of four passenger cars, either in coach or VIP seats, depending on which type of ticket they purchase. Non-discounted tickets run $35 and reservations are required.

As the train rumbled down the track, the view outside was reminiscent of a wintry landscape, sans the snow, as passengers were greeted with the view of sprawling fields and leafless woods and the train chugged along at a leisurely rate along U.S. 35.

It was about a 30 minute ride going past Galveston, and stopping at Lincoln, which has been decorated as the North Pole, before stopping for a bit and heading back. All along the way, passengers were treated to cookies courtesy of Taylor's Bakery in Indianapolis and hot chocolate.

Santa and Mrs. Claus make the rounds, stopping at seats to talk to children.

"We try to make it moving entertainment," said Jennifer Duba, the museum's event coordinator.

Behind the curtain separating the train's passengers from the crew, Duba was coordinating the two pairs of Santas and Mrs. Clauses, who spilt up for different sides of the train, and attendants serving complimentary refreshments.

"I love the event, it's a lot of work," she said.

Duba has been involved in the event for three seasons, she said, as she and other crew members continuously prepared cups of hot chocolate for the approximately 300 passengers.

Back in the passenger cars, storytellers told the passengers a fable-like story about a bear named Snowflake, the mascot for the event, and in other areas, volunteer Brian Henke provided some musical entertainment.

Henke said he's been involved with the event nearly every year of its existence.

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