Few seats still available on popular East Bay holiday train rides
By Lou Fancher
“All aboard!” is swiftly becoming the most attractive invitation heard in the Tri-Valley during this holiday season. From tours with or without wine on the Livermore Wine Trolley to a ride on the ever-popular Niles Canyon Railway’s Train of Lights, an annual trip offers charm and old-fashioned “mobile device” entertainment.
“It’s just fun. A trolley ride is unique. I wish I could tell you something more extravagant, but really, it’s just pure fun,” said Ann Luke, the trolley’s Vice President of Marketing.
There are two options available to passengers in the program’s third year. The “Lights of Livermore Holiday Tour” begins at Concannon Vineyard with light appetizers and wine tasting, followed by a 75-minute trolley ride through neighborhoods decorated with holiday lights.
A downtown no-alcohol version geared for families follows a similar circuit through Livermore wine country and has riders hop on the 34-seat trolley near the Bankhead Theatre. Due to the popularity of the downtown tour, which was offered on a limited basis and sold out often in 2015, dates this year have been increased considerably. Even so, Luke said the demand is high.
“It takes you back to when you were a kid. The music on the train syncs up with the music played at houses that have dancing lights, and keeps the beat. It puts you in the holiday spirit.”
Over in Sunol and Niles in Fremont, Donna and Rich Alexander have been volunteering with the Niles Canyon Railway for 16 years. Tickets for the approximately 80-minute tours that depart from Niles at 4:30 p.m. and Sunol at 7:30 p.m. every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the holiday season (except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) are a hot commodity.
“The train itself is the event,” said Donna Alexander. “We’re one of the rare railroad museums where we allow people to walk around on the train.”
The train is decorated inside and out by some of the roughly 400 volunteers who provide a plethora of services — marketing, engineering, conducting, ticketing, snack bar and gift shop operations and more. In addition to the train’s holiday lights, seasonal music and a Santa and “Mrs. C” delight families.
“We have one lady who comes from Australia and her family rides the train every year. It’s a tradition,” said Alexander.
Train operators go through a series of classes and hands-on training that begins with achieving “student brakeman” status, then builds to conductor, fireman and engineer. Alexander said her husband’s entry — and subsequently, her own — followed an unexpected path through their backyard.
“We started with train layouts to put in our yard,” she says. “I got my husband a G-Scale (garden railway) model and a membership with the Bay Area Garden Railway Society.”
The couple began attending model railway open houses, stumbling on Niles Railway member Al McCracken’s display and learning the railway museum could use more volunteers. Alexander’s husband was a retired electrician and one afternoon in 2000, he “disappeared” for hours, she said. “He told me it was just one afternoon, but he had so much fun, he just kept doing it.”
Months later, helping to park cars during the Train of Lights tours, Alexander got sucked in.
“The depot in Sunol wasn’t even functional; they used it as a ticket booth only,” she recalled. Eight years later, she took over station agent duties.
One of her fondest memories was the time the Niles trip was interrupted when a rare rain downpour caused a mudslide.
“The 4:30 train could only go so far and then was blocked by boulders. It had to reverse and a crew moved the rocks with machines. We sent the train to Sunol, but it was late by then. People were waiting and waiting. When it pulled in, everyone was just cheering.”
Although several of this year’s dates are nearly or already sold out, Alexander said unusual circumstances mean people still have a chance of climbing on board. Three train cars that were being refurbished and were not certain to be ready on time have been completed. A recount of seats sold online have revealed up to 30 extra seats on some tours.
Alexander said that advance sales are limited to 380 seats out of the train’s maximum capacity of 450, which guarantees seats if one of the cars is not working. “It’s antique equipment, so if a car goes out, we have to have a cushion,” she said. Walk-ups, therefore, are sometimes successful, when a group’s reserved tickets are not all used or last-minute cancellations occur.
For people whose schedules or luck getting tickets do not allow them to participate this year, Alexander said signing up at the website for early alerts in 2017 is the best way to know in advance when next year’s tickets go on sale.