Niles Canyon RailRoad
Train of Lights

A ride, December 2007

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The major fund-raiser for the Niles Canyon RailWay is the "Train-of-Lights", a highly decorated train that makes two runs a night during the Christmas Holiday season.

Early last October (2007) Dave Lion, a friend of mine, gave me a heads-up that tickets for the "Train-of-Lights" tickets would soon be on sale :-)) I started e-mailing around the family for interest, and by the time everyone had been prodded into responding, the tickets had been sold out. I was advised that there might be more train cars msde available, and so got on the stand-by list. On October 23 I was able to buy the tickets for interested people :-)))

The ticket agent recommended the early (4:30 PM) train.

Just before December 19th, the day of our ride, Dave kindly sent the following information to help us further enjoy the trip.

Hey, Ed !

I MIGHT join you on the train (to help the crew if needed). In case I'm not able to give you any sort of tour or narrative, perhaps this email will do. Let me know BY NOON if the attached file is somehow not printable. Attached is some USEFUL info about the cars on the train (with various pertinent details on comfort).

FIRST of all, you should pre-select your choices of the best cars for your group's comfort, then when you get on board you probably ought to 'stake out' some seats together, and not move around much until the train gets under way. Then some of you can wander about the train to see the sights, buy drinks, get cold, get warm again, etc.

The modern Santa Fe coach, "Tolani", near the Niles end of the train, is a very good place for anyone not feeling well.

For comfort in all the unheated cars (and definitely for outside comfort) I'd advise wearing long underwear, gloves, hat and maybe having some sort of hand-warmer device like the single-use ones sold at OSH for about $1.50.

Boarding points for the train are chosen by the Conductor, but are likely to include the "S.P. 2101", "All Day Lunch", "Combine", and "W.P. 315". Sometimes they even choose the places where we electricians installed nice halogen 'boarding lights' next to the steps.

Incidentally, the "Combine" car still shows 3 distinct sections: Sunol end (with the bar) has a slotted floor needed to allow drainage of melting ice in the CARGO area. The middle section has the pot-belly stove, a small sink, steam heat pipes, mail slots and a gun rack for 2 shotguns used to protect the MAIL. The Niles end (which long ago used to be walled off to protect the mail) has a small number of seats for PASSENGERS.

Roughly 10 minutes (2 miles) into the trip the train will roll slowly through our rail yard. You will probably pass by the beautiful Yosemite Valley Observation car on the next track over. Hopefully its lights will be powered by an extension cord and reveal the many stained glass windows.

Half way through the trip, while stopped at Niles, the engineers transfer control of the train to the new "head end" locomotive. This mostly involves the air brake controls. You might hear radio talk about a "20 pound reduction" (of air pressure) when one engineer sets the brakes then disconnects his/her brake control. Then the other engineer engages that control stand and releases the brakes. The engineers at each end use pressure gages to verify the full end-to-end functional connectivity of the brake line: "I see your 20 pound set". "I see your release". Much more thorough tests take place at the rail yard when the train is first moved. If you miss all that, you might hear if again after you arrive back at Sunol depot.

During occasional brake use, you should be able to hear air hissing out of high vent pipes at the ends of a few of the cars. I don't recall which ones.

The "open" (not enclosed) cars are good for viewing the outside lights while going around curves. Just don't lean out too far! Might be good for a video shot.

The caboose is probably privately chartered and anyway, not safely accessible during travel. I recommend NOT riding it even if available because once on board it, you're there until the train stops again. If you do go there, the absolute best place to be is up the ladders and into the cupola where the 4 seats accommodate 8 kids or 8 very friendly adults. I'd guess you might be forced to give up your view seat after a few minutes. Only agile adults, wearing proper shoes should attempt to get up there.

At various points during the trip the head end locomotive is required by law to toot the horn. The two diesels have rather different horn types. The "918" really bellows!

So, even without a radio, you can still know what's going on. When the train is about to start moving: 2 short toots means 'forward', 3 short toots means 'backward'. Forward & backward are relative to the locomotive doing the pulling, referred to as the "head end".
The morse code letter "Q" ( _ _ . _ ) is a general warning to people and vehicles as the train approaches bridges, road crossings.
You might sometimes also hear 1 short toot which is used to acknowledge an order from the Conductor. This is normally done the order came by hand signal or lamp signal instead of via radio.

If anybody is carrying a portable 'scanner' radio they might enjoy listening in on 160.695 MHz. Radio talk often includes the name (number) of the engine. Your train will (probably) be using engine "918" on the Sunol (east) end and engine "5623" on the Niles (west) end. Both are beautifully restored and both have web pages to tell their stories. (See the attachment)


A big elf and his associate will be walking through the train to excite/scare the rug-rats. Have cameras handy.

I wish to thank you on behalf of the attendees for the very helpful hints you sent.

The weather, inspite of the forcast high probablilty of rain, was beautiful :-))

We had a GREAT time - We wound up in the Santa Fe Coach which you recommended :-)) and walked through every car but the caboose, the door to which was locked, and it seemed to contain a private party? But you are correct, access to it would have been "interesting".

Carl and I talked with some guy in the El Paso car about the rails used in the original track, the later rails, and the current rails. He also told us about this section of the line being built toward Sacramento, and a line being built from Sacramento to here, meeting near Tracy. And of the steel being shipped up to Sacramento by barge or other vessel. Then there was some electrical problem and he was hustled away to look at it.

We bought and ate lots of the on-board cookies ;-))

Mr. "Elf" and Mrs. Santa Claus made the rounds, but our kids were frightened of the strangers in the strange train. :-|

If you have comments or suggestions, Send e-mail to Ed Thelen

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