Liam Schibel stood on the passenger rail platform in downtown Spokane and thought for a second.
“This is my first time on the train,” the 7-year-old said as he waited to board a special Holiday Express excursion hosted by BNSF Railway for military members and their families on Thursday evening.
Rail officials said it was the company’s way of showing its appreciation for service members.
Liam was among more than 200 adults and children who boarded the special train of a dozen restored vintage cars from BNSF’s executive fleet.
“It’s awesome,” said Amber DeMotts, who took her three boys and sister with her. “We’ve ridden Amtrak before, but this is totally different.”
The soda pop and snacks were free, and the guests got a chance to meet Santa, who passed out commemorative holiday ornaments.
“I’m going to be Santa’s helper,” exclaimed Antonio Furfaro, 4, after meeting the red-suited visitor.
“This is neat they do this,” said his mother Julia Furfaro. Her husband, Steve Furfaro, is deployed in the Air National Guard and could not make it.
The train left the Amtrak station at 221 W. First St. just after 4 p.m. and followed the former Great Northern Railway line west to just beyond Fairchild Air Force Base and returned nearly two hours later.
The cars have names such as the Colorado River, Bay View, Powder River and Red River. The Fox River is equipped with a dance floor and bar. Most were built in the 1950s. Guests were free to roam the isles.
The train is on a 10-day excursion through the Pacific Northwest with 10 trips planned in several cities.
The visit began Wednesday with a run out of the BNSF refueling facility at Hauser, Idaho, in which another 200 adults and children rode to a nearby rail line location known as North Pole between Athol and Ramsey, said Gus Melonas, spokesman for BNSF.
“This is to honor military personnel and their families,” he said.
At each stop, the company is donating $10,000 to an organization that works in support of military families.
In Spokane, the donation went to the Washington Air/Army National Guard Youth Camp. The donation in Idaho is going to a family support organization for guard and reserve members.
Later, military and civic dignitaries were hosted at a dinner in station with cocktails in the Mountain View lounge car followed by table service in the Lake Superior dining car.
This is the third consecutive year the company has sponsored the tour, each in a different part of its rail service area.
“We were really excited when we got this (the tickets),” said retired Sr. Master Sgt. Terry Wren. “This is fantastic.