State Fair Train is All About the Journey
There are a few experiences that almost without fail can transport an adult back to their childhood. A fireworks display or the first snowfall of winter… but perhaps nothing else quite captures the excitement and mystery of youth like a ride on a real train. There is something innately fascinating about working locomotives, but for the people involved in staging the Indiana State Fair train every year, the real satisfaction comes not just from working with real locomotives, but in working with each other.
(click here for 2011 State Fair Train Schedule)
For Craig Presler, Indiana Transportation Museum Secretary, trains have been a passion since he was a child and used to visit the train station in Noblesville with his father. After graduating from high school, Mr. Presler visited the Indiana Transportation Museum and was interested to find that the museum possessed a unique opportunity for locomotive enthusiasts. The trains from the ITM could deliver passengers to an actual destination, as opposed to similar museums in other parts of the country which simply traveled in a loop. “To be able to take the train to an actual place instead of just riding out to nowhere then back; I thought that was really exciting,” says Presler. His involvement in the ITM began in 1973, and in 1978 the idea to create a train route from the Fishers train station to the state fair developed. With the support of the state fair board and then Governor Orr, the state fair train began in 1983. The first train was a huge success, and so the tradition has continued every year since.
The Indiana Transportation Museum is a volunteer, nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve Indiana’s railroad history. The fair train accounts for roughly half of the museum’s income for the year, and so it is a very intense and organized event for the Indiana Transportation Museum. “We take as many people to and from the fair as Amtrak does over the course of a year from Indianapolis to Chicago,” states Presler. That means the fair trains log close to 4,000 miles in just 17 days, and carry anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 people during that time. “Even though we are largely run by volunteers, we are under the regulation of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). All of our training, signal inspections, equipment inspections, everything is regulated by the FRA to ensure that we are meeting all safety standards. This operation couldn’t be more serious,” comments Presler. Many people who ride the train are surprised to find how smoothly the operation runs, and Presler has many anecdotes on passengers who underestimated the efficiency of the train’s schedules and wound up standing on the platform without a ride. Presler says, “The trains run a 30-minute trip, sit for 15 (minutes), and then start the next run. We aim to be within a minute of on time, and we have to keep that schedule tight because you can get backed up pretty quick if you don’t.”
For Lara Blastick and her children, the fair train represents a new family tradition. “We started taking our two boys down to the fair on the train a few years ago, and it has become one of our favorite outings. The boys look forward to the ride every summer!” says Blastick. “We took the fair train that first year because our oldest son, Ethan, was really into Thomas the Train at the time. He’s outgrown that phase, but there is something about riding on a real train that is still fascinating to all of us. Plus, quite honestly, I love that we don’t have to mess with parking when we get down to the fairgrounds.”
Fascination with the equipment utilized by the ITM is a huge draw for many fair train passengers, and the equipment has no shortage of interesting history. The stainless steel coaches were some of the very first Budd cars off the assembly line in Michigan. The coaches will be 75 years old next year, but still appear modern in design. Presler refers to these cars as the “great-grandfather of all modern cars.” The museum’s train even employs a rare Mars light, which oscillates vertically. It was developed by a Chicago firefighter in the 1930s and was funded by the Mars Candy Company, thus giving the light its name. As Presler puts it, “There really are stories at every turn here.”
For the ITM, the fair train is only a small part of the story. The ITM operates 39 miles of railroad line once known as the Indianapolis & Peru, and eventually the Nickel Plate Road. The ITM has 24 scheduled named trains operating over a period of 80 days throughout the year. These trains include “dinner and a movie” rides that carry passengers from the museum in Noblesville’s Forest Park to Tipton, where they can enjoy dinner at either the Pizza King or Jim Dandy, and then make the short walk to the Diana Theater to watch a first run movie. Another popular train is the Polar Bear Express train, which leaves out of Fishers Station and travels through Noblesville’s square on to Forest Park, where passengers are joined by Santa, Mrs. Claus, and a Polar Bear for the return trip. In addition to the named trains, the ITM also offers school field trips and charter trips. “We’ve done trips as small as 2 passengers for a gentleman who wanted to propose to his girlfriend to as large as 1,700 people for a company picnic. We do rehearsal dinners, wedding receptions and family reunions. We can vary the equipment, for example, adding a dining car, to accommodate just about any group,” says Presler.
The story of the Indiana Transportation Museum and its fair train would not be possible without the many people working behind the scenes. Lavonne Stage has been a volunteer at ITM for ten years and helps make the fair train a reality every year. When asked to describe her favorite aspect of working on the fair train, Stage responded, “I’d have to say working with the other volunteers and interacting with the public. Whether it is their first ride on a train or a family tradition, everyone is so excited to be there and that’s a lot of fun to be around.” Craig Presler echoes Stage’s comments, “I find the equipment endlessly fascinating, but the human experience is what is really important. It is a real thrill to work with this group of people. We’re very close – this group feels like a family.”
The 2011 fair train will be adding a stop at 71st Street for the first time since 1983. There are also many plans in development for ITM, including train routes into Union Station in downtown Indianapolis. “What we do with the fair train is unmatched anywhere in the country,” states Presler. For nearly thirty years the Indianapolis Transportation Museum has been taking excited passengers to the Indiana State Fair, and for many, transporting them back to their youth. For those volunteers who dedicate much of their free time to organizing and running the fair train, the old cliché, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” is as reliable as the schedule they keep.
The Indiana State Fair train will run every day of the Fair, August 5-17, departing from Fishers Station and arriving at the fairgrounds at 39th Street and Fall Creek. Volunteers are still needed for the Fair Train and other ITM events. Please visit www.itm.org for more information on volunteering or about additional train events happening throughout the year.