Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Presenting Rail Fest 2010

This is the second year of Rail Fest since I began blogging, and I've finally remembered why I didn't blog about it last year - it is exhausting! Finally, now after nearly a week has gone by, do I have the energy (or the time) to sit down and tell you the story of Rail Fest.

Rail Fest began as a conversation between Ken Bible and Dave Harrold of North Platte about five years ago. Ken is a rail fan and long time North Platte businessman, and Dave is an extremely busy and dynamic community activist and businessman as well. The goal was simple - create an event that celebrated the importance to North Platte of Union Pacific Railroad and its army of local employees, and raise money for the Original Town organization to rehab low to moderate income housing in North Platte's oldest neighborhoods.

Nothing is ever that simple, but when you have someone as energetic as Dave Harrold behind it, it is going to happen, simple or not. Through his persistance and persuasion, he garnered the support of the community of North Platte, the Union Pacific Railroad corporation, and the management of our local Bailey Yard.

He also rounded up an army of volunteers who would make the dream a reality. Below, you see members of the North Platte Community College Rodeo Club, who are involved with Rail Fest for the first time this year. These young people are a godsend, having the strength and stamina to do all of the heavy lifting associated with setting up a community celebration of this magnitude that us "old folks" find difficult.
North Platte's RSVP organization has been with Rail Fest since day one, providing the man and woman power to staff the information and merchandise booths, keep the entertainment, kids games, art show and model train show and wellness programs running smoothly, distributing tickets and just generally doing whatever is necessary!

One other major source of volunteers is our local schools. Sutherland Public School in particular has a program that requires children to get a certain number of community service hours each semester during their time in high school in order to graduate. We've always had a great response from these kids and been overjoyed with the help they provide. Maxwell and Hershey schools as well have sent kids to help.
The first day of Rail Fest 2010 dawned sunny and promised a beautiful day. We enjoyed it, because from the weather forecast, the rest of the weekend wasn't going to be so nice.

The bus tours of Bailey Yard are the cornerstone of the celebration, and the first one rolled out of Cody Park at 9am on Friday. This is one event where the North Platte businesses get involved, and Gateway Realty provides the personnel to keep the tours running smoothly. Many other businesses, especially in the tourism sector provided step-on guides for the tours to entertain and inform on the way to the yard.

The rest of Rail Fest opened at noon on that first Friday, and a popular spot is the merchandise booth, where another community partner, Coldwell Banker, along with RSVP were kept busy distributing the commemorative coins to Bailey Yard employees produced by Rail Fest each year and selling Rail Fest memorabilia.

The official opening ceremonies were held at 4pm, complete with musical entertainment from North Platte High School and our own Sweet Adelines. Dave Harrold presented a beautiful commemorative plaque to Bailey Yard Superintendent Chad Wilburn in appreciation for all of the support he and his team provides. The first stop for the bus tour is the Diesel Shop facility. While we aren't allowed inside, the doors are wide open and avid Rail Fans can peek in to see all of the happenings.
Regular readers of this blog know of my obsession with Deadliest Catch, and of our trip to Seattle last year for CatchCon to meet the captains and crews. Let me tell you, if there were reality show cameras following the guys from Bailey Yard around, we would have celebrities from right here in North Platte just like the Bad Boys of the Bering Sea. The guys who "build America" are every bit the hardworking, hard playing, rough around the edges American heroes as are the crab fishermen from Alaska.

Rail Fans recognize this and flock around the UP representatives to get to know the men behind the jobs.
In the minds of Rail Fans, these guys who actually get to work around trains every day, see them, touch them, hear them, know the inner workings of the industry are akin to rock stars.
Of course, having the opportunity to see and touch the locomotives up close is pretty special to these visitors too.
Following the stop at the Diesel Shop, a step-on guide from the Railroad boarded our buses for the hour-long tour through the yard itself. Our guide John is a relative newcomer to the Bailey Yard family, having worked here for a mere 11 years. Since UP regularly wins awards for being a great place to work, it is easy to see why many employees work their entire career for a single employer.
One of the sights we got to see on our tour was the in-line replacement of wheels on freight cars. The process was invented by ingenious employees right here in Bailey Yard. The teams have trained with NASCAR pit crews to perfect the system, and it saves UP millions of dollars and man hours each year.

To determine if there are problems with the wheels, Bailey Yard has a state-of-the-art Wheel Defect Detection facility, one of only one or two of its kind. The trains roll slowly through the building while the wheels are x-rayed or ultrasounded or MRI'd or whatever it is they do to them to detect flaws. The goal is to have each coal train inspected once each year. Considering the thousands of coal trains that pass through North Platte, that is a very lofty goal indeed. Locally, the facility is affectionately known as the "Crack House." So don't get alarmed if you hear that term while you're in town.
With somewhere around 150 trains a day going through Bailey Yard, many of them needing sorted, repairs, maintenance, or at least inspected and refueled, it is a major accomplishment to get the powers-that-be to agree to allow eight buses a day for three days to go galavanting around this busy operation. Can you say "Thank you Union Pacific"?
There is an overpass in the yard that they use to shuttle locomotives from one side of the yard to another. The official title is the Power Overpass, but, although the origin of the name is lost in obscurity, locally it is known as the Sheep Jump. I like Sheep Jump better.

It is also possible to drive buses over the Sheep Jump, and the view from here is spectacular. As you can see the visitors on my bus too full advantage of the view. Above is facing east and below is facing west. Just a few trains, huh?
Back at Cody Park, visitors are already strolling through the many arts and crafts and railroad memorabilia vendors. With the participation of some local members of Grow Nebraska, you could literally find anything at Rail Fest from soup to nuts!
One of the most important and popular aspects of Rail Fest is the involvement of Union Pacific, as seen above in the bus tours of Bailey Yard, but also in the number of employees who come out to Cody Park to show just what it is they do at the Railroad. They bring equipment displays out, which is great for people to see and feel.
But they also spend countless hours at the park themselves, telling their stories to eager fans. After all, it's one thing to look at a solid piece of steel or a large piece of equipment, but it's quite another to learn what it's like to work with that hardware to make a railroad run.
Union Pacific Railroad also uses the occasion of Rail Fest to host it's employee family day picnic. This year they served about 4,000 UP employees and their families. Saturday of Family Day saw highs in the low 40's and a cold mist most of the day, so their numbers were down a little bit this year, but it's great to see how much Union Pacific values their employees and the sacrifices their families make to have the guys gone for long trips on the road, or in the yard for the three shifts and awkward rest days of a 24/7 operation.

The Family Day activities and Equipment Displays are coordinated by Jerry Vieyra and his team. He's threatened that he's going to scale down his participation and pass the torch on to other volunteers, and if he follows through, we're going to miss him. While I didn't get a picture of it, he received a plaque of appreciation at the opening ceremonies.

There are so many important events at Rail Fest, from the bus tours and the equipment displays, and one extremely popular event is the model railroad show. This year Dave honored volunteer extrordinaire Bernie McNulty with a beautiful plaque of appreciation. Besides making the model train show happen, Bernie promotes Rail Fest throughout the year, and helps out where ever he can. We love you Bernie!
While hundreds of sponsors (including my own North Platte/Lincoln County Convention and Visitors Bureau) contribute to the success of Rail Fest, one of the major partners is Nebraskaland National Bank. Not only do they provide significant financial support, their employees are out there before the crack of dawn cooking a pancake breakfast on Saturday. There is a line for their delicious food (come rain or shine) from about 8am to nearly 10. They were also kind enough this year to provide rolls on Sunday. Yum!
While I wasn't able to record it in photographs, Congressman Adrian Smith was honored at the breakfast Saturday morning for his efforts in having North Platte named America's official Rail Town USA by an act of Congress in 2008.

For the little Rail Fans, the Union Pacific #956 Miniature Train made another appearance in North Platte. You can see from the photo below that the weather was none too balmy, but that didn't make a difference to the small fry in convincing their parents to board the train.
Another major component of Rail Fest that I didn't get a picture of is the non-stop entertainment under the Cody Park Pavilion. Live entertainment from 4pm to 10pm on Friday, 8am to 10pm on Saturday and 8am to 4pm on Sunday, ranging from Latin Jam to bluegrass, barbershop to chorales, there was always something happening under the tent. The entertainment group also organizes the hobo contest for the kids.

North Platte's parks department does an amazing job throughout the festival, as they do throughout the year. Always at the beck and call of the organizers, they make it all happen from providing the barricades to block the roads, posts to place the banners, personnel to keep the trash and toilet facilities clean, and just about any other kind of support you can imagine.

Cody Park has a wonderful carnival area with kiddie rides, fantastic concession stand, wonderful Railroad Museum and interesting menagerie of animals. All are made available free of charge during Rail Fest. Rail Fest also provides additional fun for the kiddies in the form of Fun Jumpz inflatable activities for the kids.

As I said above, the model railroad exhibit is always interesting. This year it was especially popular, not only for the great displays of model railroads, but because the National Guard Armory, located just across the street from Cody Park, was WARM and DRY!
There was just too much going on during the three days for me to record everything! I haven't even mentioned the Civil War Cemetery Tour sponsored by our North Platte Public Library, the Civil War Reenactment at our Lincoln County Historical Museum, the Art Show, the Fashion Show, or the ever-popular Strong Man competition.

Nor did I get a chance to mention the vital participation of the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center, North Platte's premiere railroad attraction, or the importance of the Lincoln County Sheriff's Posse in keeping people safe crossing from the parking lot to the street and the Leisure Services Transportation Department for providing the shuttle buses. I imagine there are others that I've forgotten too, because the whole community was involved in some way!

I guess the bottom line is that you'll just have to come to North Platte to experience it all for yourself!

For those diehard Nebraska fans, being at Rail Fest during the game didn't mean missing the action. Not only did the UP Family Day Picnic have the game on a big screen, but one of the vendors provided live coverage as well. Nebraska won, by the way.
I would be extremely remiss at this point if I didn't give a shout out of appreciation to The Mister, his great friends and my sister for sticking with us to the bitter end Sunday night tearing down all the tents, loading the tables and generally wrapping up the festivities for another year. Also, for filling the hot tub Saturday morning and making sure it was ready for my frozen bones when I got home that night!

Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on. We hope to share it with you in person at Rail Fest 2011!

ShareThis