On the chilly morning of December 15, 2018, at a suburban Chicago Metra station, a locomotive horn sounding the familiar rhythm of “Jingle Bells” resonates in the air. Children and their families wait eagerly as a festively decorated train consisting of a red locomotive and alternating green and red passenger cars pulls into the station. This is no ordinary commuter train. “Operation North Pole” (ONP) and its passengers are about to embark on a fantasy trip designed to provide them respite from their troubles and brighten their lives. Its arrival represents the culmination of a year’s worth of planning, fundraising, and volunteering by individuals and sponsors alike.
Just as the true meaning of Christmas is more than exchanging gifts, the true meaning of Operation North Pole is more than just a festively decorated train. From humble beginnings at a makeshift facility and a ride on an in-service Metra suburban train, ONP has developed into a daylong event including its own chartered and decorated train, culminating with festivities at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in suburban Rosemont, Ill.
The 2016 Operation North Pole consist included F40PH-3 133 and cars 6158, 6054, 6050, 8415, and 8515. On January 4, 2017, Train 617 was northbound between Arlington Park and Palatine on its way to Crystal Lake. —Bruce C. Nelson photo
ONP began in 2011 when Barb Dabler (currently ONP board president) and Tim Crossin (ONP’s treasurer) approached Metra spokesperson Meg Thomas-Reile to discuss a group rate to use one coach on a regular service train. That day eight years ago, 28 Chicago-area families of children with life-threatening or terminal illnesses were invited to take a train trip “to the North Pole” on the Metra Union Pacific Northwest Line to see Santa Claus. They started out with a buffet breakfast with Ronald McDonald and Mrs. Claus, then rode a bus to Des Plaines and boarded one reserved car on an ordinary in-service Metra train to Harvard dubbed “The Polar Express” (licensing requirements prevented future use of this name).
Because outwardly the train looked like a typical Metra run, the engineer decided he needed to differentiate it from ordinary trains in some way. As the train approached Des Plaines station to pick up the children and their families, he sounded the Jingle Bells rhythm on the air horn, a tradition that has continued ever since. On board, guests were treated to hot chocolate and Happy Meals provided by McDonald’s. Thomas-Reile recalls that the interior of one car was decorated by volunteers who boarded in downtown Chicago and began stringing twinkle lights in the passenger compartment as the train was in motion, finishing just before arriving in Des Plaines.
Before he greets passengers individually while en route, Santa Claus poses for photos and rides the ONP locomotive into Des Plaines for its ceremonial arrival. —Mark Llanuza photo
On that first trip the mood was festive with everyone singing Christmas carols and playing games. At each stop, ONP passengers waved to first responders and members of the public who came out to cheer them on and “direct” them to the North Pole with signs pointing the way. Because of the serious nature of the children’s illnesses, nothing was left to chance on that first trip or any thereafter. Not only are the first responders at each town there to greet the train, they’re also available to address any medical situations which may arise…