Trains have long been associated with Christmas. And although I'm not a model train collector, I do get plenty of "train time" during the holidays by working as a brass caroler at the Strasburg Railroad. Each weekend I post similar photos with similar captions on my social media pages and you might wonder why anybody would spend so many hours doing something that seems so monotonous. True, the days are long and unchanging, but they're very satisfying and enjoyable at the same time. It many ways it compares to distance running. You repeat the same simple task over and over for a long period of time. It's tough yet relaxing, building both mental and physical strength. In fact, working on the train has helped me become a better distance runner and vice versa. So for those who've wondered, here's what a day on the Strasburg Railroad Santa trains is like.
On Saturdays, we start about 9:45am by heading into the run down station house to grab our railroad issue, 1900-style bowler hat and if needed, a small book of music. Women skip the hat in exchange for a cape. The hats and capes are part of the brass caroler uniform, along with black pants (men), long black skirts (women), white shirts, vests & ties (men) and the most comfortable black shoes you own.
The walk to up to the platform only takes about 3 minutes but seems much longer on cold, windy days. We put our gear and food in the baggage car, which is like a railroad dorm room party. Everybody's in there! The photographers, the duo of carolers, Santa and his assistants, the brass duo, and sometimes some crewmen. That's the the time for small talk and greetings- once the train rolls there isn't much time for anything except work.
The first Saturday train usually leaves the station at 10am, so the "baggage car party" breaks up, with each little team going to its spot, like a stage actor when "places" are called. We'll make a roughly 9 mile trip from Strasburg to Paradise and back in about 50 minutes. During that trip, every job must be completed.
My job is to perform brass carols on each car of the train with my duo, Holiday Horns. I wrote the arrangements we play and serve as co-contractor, staffing each train with brass, all season long. Our Holiday Horns duo plays about 3-4 songs on each car of the train as it rolls down the track. This year, the trains are 10 cars long, making it a bit more difficult to visit each one before the trip ends.
The trains are usually crowded but the passengers are almost always in a good mood. Santa is definitely the crowd favorite, but people appreciate our music too and they let us know. As the music arranger, the compliments I most appreciate come from the few who comment about the arrangements we're playing.
The train consists of 6 coaches, which are standard passenger cars. There are also 4 specialty cars- dining, lounge/dining, lounge, and first class. Each of these cars presents its own challenges as far as where you can safely stand with a metal horn pressed to your face, without getting run into by a trainman, Santa, or a food server. I lost part of a tooth one year when a dining car waitress bumped my horn as she passed by.
When the train returns to the station, the brass players are at the opposite end from where we started, so we get off the train and walk back up to the front. We have only a few minutes to eat, drink and use the bathroom before the whole thing starts over again. Hour after hour.
Our train leaves the station every hour from 10am-5pm (returning at 6pm) on Saturdays and from 11am-4pm (returning at 5pm) on Sundays. As tiring as the Saturdays can be, the Sundays can be worse with muscles and embouchures still recovering from yesterday's abuse. There's also another train that leaves on the half hour (e.g. 11:30) doing basically the same thing. Each train has a Holiday Horns duo, carolers and Santa so passengers get the same experience no matter when they ride.
For train fans, it doesn't get any better than Strasburg Railroad. The cars and the engine are all authentic and meticulously maintained. Riding feels like a step back in time, especially as you roll past the Lancaster County farmland.
I've been playing the Strasburg Railroad Santa trains for 16 years now and I still enjoy the experience. I'm a Christmas music junkie who gets to perform his own arrangements with friends, for interested listeners, and is well-paid. It's a good gig!