The Holiday Express train pulled out of downtown Spokane on Wednesday loaded with excited kids and smiling parents.
BNSF Railway Corp. hosted 350 military families in a two-hour rail excursion.
“I go choo, choo,” said Charlie Crotty, 2, son of Lt. Col. Matt Crotty of the Washington Army National Guard, as the train left the station.
“I think it is totally awesome,” said his sister, Avery Crotty, 7.
A day earlier, the Holiday Express hosted another 350 military families for a train excursion from Hauser to North Pole – an unincorporated community near Athol – and back.
In each trip, the railroad provided drinks and snacks, Christmas ornaments as souvenirs and a visit from Santa Claus, who worked his way down the aisle greeting all aboard.
“Thank you guys for coming out tonight and more importantly for what you do for our country,” said Andy Williams, the railroad’s director of public affairs.
The train is composed of 14 restored vintage cars from the 1950s, all decorated with holiday lights and trimmings.
The gleaming metal cars stood at the elevated passenger platform Wednesday afternoon.
Kylie Pepperman, 9, said the best thing about the ride was enjoying it with her friends.
Kylie, the daughter of Master Sgt. Chris and Erin Pepperman, was among 17 passengers in a group of four military families who found their place at the end of one of the coaches.
“It’s fantastic,” Erin Pepperman said.
Senior Master Sgt. Jason Rudy, a firefighter at Fairchild Air Force Base, said he didn’t tell his four children they were going for a train ride until they got to the depot at Sprague Avenue and Bernard Street.
His daughter, Kiera, 10, said she had dozed off on the trip downtown and was a little groggy at first. “I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. When she learned they were going to take a train ride, she said she was “really excited.”
BNSF started its Holiday Express five years ago as a way of saying thank you to military families. It last came through the Inland Northwest in 2010.
As part of this year’s Western states excursion, the railroad is also donating $100,000 to organizations that support military families. In Spokane, BNSF gave $10,000 each to the Minuteman Emergency Assistance Fund and the Association of Washington Generals, both of which help National Guard families.
In all, the excursion will host 3,000 military family members.
“It’s an honor to host the Holiday Express in Spokane,” said Zak Andersen, BNSF vice president of corporate relations, in a brief ceremony after the train ride.
Railroad officials said BNSF is committed to hiring veterans – about 17 percent of its workers are veterans.
“It’s pretty cool they do this,” said Senior Master Sgt. Steve Coulston of the Washington Air National Guard.