It’s a busy time of year for Reinhard Hurt.
While he’s not Santa Claus, the DTE facility maintenance journeyman knows how to deliver Christmas cheer to families throughout Michigan.
Each holiday season, he spends five weekends as a volunteer conductor aboard the North Pole Express. The holiday train is pulled by an authentic steam locomotive, PM 1225, built in 1941. It transports thousands of families from Owosso to the Village of Ashley’s Country Christmas.
“I help maintain and care for the engine and coaches, greet and board the passengers, pose for photos, answer questions, and sometimes help serve old-fashioned hot cocoa,” he said. “The North Pole Express is a holiday tradition for a lot of families, especially since the engine is so special.”
Also called the Pere Marquette 1225, the North Pole Express provided the inspiration for the popular classic Christmas Warner Brothers film, The Polar Express, based on the book with the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. Much like the Tom Hanks character in the movie, Reinhard wears a brass-button trimmed uniform and cap and expertly punches his young passenger’s souvenir train tickets with words like “lead” and “believe.”
“I really enjoy seeing the kids line up to get their tickets punched,” he said. “I start out by doing it for one little guy and before I know it, they are all lined up. They get the ticket back and it’s something they can always keep.”
Reinhard is in his ninth-year volunteering for the Steam Railroading Institute, which supports the North Pole Express. He volunteers more than 300 hours a year.
“For five weekends before Christmas, I stay overnight in Owosso,” he said. “I get up early in the morning to unlock the coaches, start the onboard generator, get the heat and lights on and re-stock and clean up from the day before.”
Despite the long hours, Reinhard finds the volunteer work rewarding and goes out of his way to make the journey special, especially for his youngest passengers, and to share a bit about railroading history along the way.
“On the way back home, every passenger gets a silver jingle bell,” he said. “In the story, the bell rings for all who truly believe. Sometimes, our bells don’t work, so I keep extra ones in my pocket so nobody is disappointed.”
The North Pole Express carries around 1,000 passengers on 22 trips to Ashley and tickets are always sold out. While the authentic 1940’s era steam engine attracts passengers, it also requires Reinhard to uphold his DTE commitment to safety.