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Train lights or not, Waterloo festival is still a go

November 24, 2018

The supplier of one of northeast Indiana’s favorite Christmastime presents seems to have gone all Grinchy.

For several years, the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train has been traversing the state, as well as Ohio and Michigan, delighting thousands in its path with rail cars decked with colorfully festive, animated lights.

But this year, railroad officials say they may not keep up the tradition.

The train will still pass through northeast Indiana communities, including Waterloo in DeKalb County, where crowds of residents have turned out around midnight to greet the train during its scheduled run west the night of Nov. 30.

But, “For rail security and safety reasons, we may turn our lights off,” says a statement posted Monday on the attraction’s Facebook page.

It’s the only notification the railroad has issued, said Tena Woenker, Waterloo town manager. And the message has definitely curbed her holiday spirit. That’s because since last summer, Woenker has been organizing a community festival based on the fact that people come out to watch the train whiz through town.

Last year, Waterloo’s rail history museum in a restored train station now used by Amtrak opened so those waiting for the Holiday Train had somewhere warm to stay before it went by.

“Last year, we were even able to follow the train’s progress with a train tracking system they had on their web page,” she said.

This year, the idea was to add festival-like attractions “so people had more to do than just sit and talk,” Woenker said.

But the Facebook post sent plans for the event into, well, a rail-spin : even though the celebration on Friday night will survive.

In major cities, including Chicago, the train stops for music performances and other activities. But in northern Indiana communities including Waterloo, Kendallville, and Elkhart, it rushes through as a blur.

To the best of her knowledge from talking with a railroad spokeswoman, Woenker said, the reason the train may go dark is that too many people were unsafely crowding the tracks : or even getting on them in advance of the train.

If their social media posts are to be believed, people even were flying drones over the tracks, she said. She noted she was told that’s illegal under federal law.

The railroad’s right of way extends 50 feet on both sides of the tracks and is considered unsafe. Woenker said she was told the problem was in other areas and not specifically in or around Waterloo.

She said she got suspicious a few weeks before Nov. 19 when she noticed a map of the route of the train, in its 20th year, didn’t include the piece between Windsor, Ontario, and Chicago.

That stretch of track, she said, is not owned by Canadian Pacific but by Norfolk Southern, which was confirmed in the Facebook message.

She suspects there might be inter-rail, or even international, liability issues. “But they (the other railroad, Norfolk Southern) say they had nothing to do with it, and it was all Canadian Pacific,” Woenker said.

Andy Cummings, a spokesman for Canadian Pacific, did not return a call seeking information.

But along with the message about the lights, the railroad’s Facebook posting says there will be no tracking feature this year. That will keep area residents literally in the dark about when to expect the train.

Reaction was swift : and deep. By Wednesday, more than 200 people had commented on the railroad’s post, many howling in protest. More than 600 had shared it.

“Thanks to all the morons who ruined this experience for those of us with common sense,” one groused.

Nonetheless, Woenker said, Waterloo will continue with its free festival beginning at 8 p.m. Friday at 485 W. Van Vleek St. Highlights include holiday music performed by Keith Roman and the Excelsior Choir, a visit from Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus and horse-drawn wagon rides offered by the DeKalb Horsemen club.

A heated tent will house a dozen vendors selling holiday gifts and activities for children and seven local vendors are offering food and beverages. A dozen community businesses and organizations have pitched in as sponsors.

Visitors are asked to park away from the train station parking lot at Charleston Metals, Waterloo Elementary School, the Waterloo Grant Township Public Library, town hall or the United Methodist Church. Rail security staff will be on hand.

Patrons are urged to bring nonperishable items for the Warm a Heart food pantry, as has been a Holiday Train tradition throughout its runs.

More information is at www.Waterlooin.gov.

Ever an optimist, Woenker said the only statement from the railroad is that the train “may” be dark.

So that, she said, offers a bit of hope the tradition might continue.

Of course, she said with a laugh, it might help if a lot of people hold up signs that read “Believe!”

rsalter@jg.net

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