Historic Railroad Seeking Volunteers

Kansas’ newly designated heritage railroad and the state’s official steam locomotive are looking for help.

According to the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad, they have launched their most ambitious schedule in the railroad’s 31-year history.

The 2024 season, which began in early April, has already seen almost 2,000 passengers ride on the A&SV’s excursion, charter, and dinner trains, and as the summer tourism season heats up in Abilene, railroad officials are bracing for a record number of passengers.

Additionally, the railroad’s prized steam locomotive, Santa Fe 3415, is currently out of service pending a federally mandated engine overhaul that will take over a year to complete.

The all-volunteer Abilene and Smoky Valley has 49 staff members, but the increased schedule coupled with the steam engine rebuild creates a greater demand for additional help. And the A&SV is looking to develop local talent into conductors, engineers, brakemen, train hosts and attendants, and steam mechanics.

The schedule for this year includes an anticipated 300 train runs between Abilene and Enterprise, with two Flint Hills Express excursions Wednesday through Saturday, one excursion on Sunday, and weekly Smoky Valley Limited dinner trains on Saturdays. Additionally, the A&SV’s Meadowlark Flyer charter will continue to do school runs and private parties through the summer. And the railroad will again run the Great Pumpkin Patch Express in October and the Cowtown Santa Express in December.

“We’re definitely going to be busy,” said A&SV President and General Manager Ross Boelling. “Our already overworked volunteer base is going to be stretched even thinner as our full summer schedule kicks in. The wear on our staff begins to show as we run more and more trains, and we need to fortify our army of volunteers.”

Boelling said most A&SV volunteers commute to Abilene from points throughout central and northeast Kansas. The railroad’s train crews come from such cities as Topeka, Kansas City, Hutchinson, Newton, Derby, Glasco, and Wichita, with far fewer staff members emanating from the immediate Abilene area. This creates a problem since the length of the commute and the time that volunteers from more distant locations must invest in making the trip to Abilene is a limiting factor in volunteer availability. Staff members are sometimes able to come to Abilene weekly, but many are forced to come on a more truncated basis.

The A&SV thus seeks to develop a larger local base of volunteers who can more readily shore up staffing needs, especially for emergency situations.

“If our regular crew members encounter an illness, car trouble, or family emergencies, we are often left in a bad situation,” said Boelling.

“We need a minimum of four crew members per train—an engineer, a conductor, a brakeman, and a train host to do the narrations. Do the math. That requires a lot of people to meet the increased demands of our schedule. Our livelihood is based on our ability to run trains, and if we don’t have a crew, we can’t operate.”

Working for the Abilene and Smoky Valley requires no previous railroad experience. Volunteers for train crew positions are put through rigorous training in operations and general railroad safety procedures. Train hosts who provide the historical narrations on the Flint Hills Express are only required to meet people well and they must enjoy providing historical narrations.

“Our staff members come from all walks of life,” said Boelling. “We’ve had medical doctors, highway patrol troopers, Methodist ministers, farmers, lawyers, college professors, high school teachers…the list is endless. The biggest qualification for any of our staff is a love of the historical mission of our railroad and the experiences we create for our passengers.”

The steam engine rebuild has begun and the A&SV currently needs more people with mechanical abilities to help dismantle the engine and catalog the parts, then make necessary repairs and replacements to make the engine operational. Crews currently work about one weekend per month. Consultants from the Durango and Silverton Railroad in Colorado are supervising the rebuild effort.

Boelling pointed out that the A&SV also needs volunteers for other roles beyond running trains. The railroad needs staff for equipment maintenance, woodworking, painting, mowing, food service, and decorating trains for holidays and special events. And the Hoffman Grist Mill in Enterprise needs more volunteers to work in the country store and gift shop.

“Whatever a person’s skills set is, we probably have a way to use it in our operations,” Boelling said.

People can volunteer at the railroad’s website, asvrr.org.

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Photo via Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau