Sidetracked: COVID-19 idles the Hawkeye Express, but its owners plan to return next year
The Hawkeye Express sits lonely and idle on its sidetrack in a Waterloo rail yard this football season.
Freight trains roll past it daily, but it’s going nowhere this fall.
There should be deliriously excited little kids in black and gold jerseys and cheerleader outfits gazing in wonder out her windows.
Raucous fans from Nebraska should be joking in the aisles.
Elderly UI alumni should be chatting in happy clusters, joyful to have a quarter-mile trek from a remote parking lot reduced to just a few short steps from the train stop to Kinnick's front gate.
Not happening this season, thanks to COVID-19.
“Everybody’s disappointed that we can’t have the game day we all want to have,” Josh Sabin told me, standing by one of the gleaming black and gold cars sidetracked at his family’s Waterloo railroad yard. “But it was the right decision in this wacky, crazy year and, hopefully, we’ll be back next year.”
Sabin is director of administration for the Iowa Northern Railway Company, a key player in launching the Hawkeye Express 18 years ago and building it into a treasured tradition.
It all started when his father, Dan, president of the company, and a friend, Mark Jennings, then Associate Athletic Director for UI, casually pondered how to alleviate traffic congestion around Kinnick Stadium on home game days.
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Fans once came by train from throughout the Midwest during the early era of football here, up through the 1950s and 1960s. Since the tracks ran practically within spitting distance of the front gate, Sabin and his friend plotted to once again deliver people to the game by rail.
For the first two years, the railroad rented the Colorado Ski Train, which serviced skiers out of Denver. Fans embraced the concept big time, so the company purchased and refurbished six large bi-level commuter cars from Chicago, painted them in Hawkeye colors and the Express as we know it today was born.
On home game days during a normal season, the train runs between a satellite parking area near the IHOP in Coralville to Kinnick and back every half hour before and after the game. It can pack 220 people into each car and usually hauls about 5,000 happy fans on the seven-mile round trip.
Mostly happy, depending upon the game of course and the horse you are backing. Opposing fans — brave ones — sometimes sneak aboard, too.
“Sometimes, it’s a nail-biter and we have to run late,” Josh said. “But we don’t leave anybody behind.”
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“We have some fans that would not come to Kinnick any other way than on the Hawkeye Express,” Jennings, now retired, states on an informative YouTube video. The university contracts with the Sabin family to provide the train.
Sabin says other partners are Iowa Interstate Railroad, which provides the tracks and operators, university staff who handle ticket sales, and more than a dozen volunteers trained by his company to assist passengers. The City of Coralville and private developers help out with parking, too.
HEX, as they like to call it, is a labor of love for this family.
“There’s more pride than profit here,” Sabin tells me with a grin. “We’re Hawkeyes and we love being a part of game day in this way. We’re also a deeply-rooted railroad family — my grandfather was a steam locomotive engineer on this line.”
Today, Iowa Northern Railway Company hauls grain and other agricultural products over 250 miles of track through the eastern and northern sectors of Iowa.
“We run a freight railroad,” he said, “but the Hawkeye Express is very special to us. No other college we know of has one.”
Why do people love trains so much? Especially this one?
“That’s easy,” he says. “There is something magical about a train; they are big and noisy; they have lights and there is so much energy — they are almost like a living thing. Some families just ride the train and don’t even go to the game.”
Sabin and his brother Jonah work the Express every game day.
“Moving 5,000 people in a few hours is a big task,” Josh says. “It’s not necessarily complicated, but there are a lot of moving parts. We want people to have a great experience and a safe experience. We don’t want anything less than perfect on game day.”
In the interest of full disclosure, Sabin admits being a Michigan State graduate who can sometimes have confused loyalties when the Hawks play the Spartans. “But that’s just one game in a year,” he says.
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Fans will remember that, in 2014, some 80 giant fiberglass statues of Herky were positioned around the territory, cleverly painted by artists to portray popular characters and institutions, from RAGBRAI Herky to Herky of the Opera.
One of the most popular was Hawkeye Express Conductor Herky. A miniature version owned by my wife sits proudly year-round in our living room, next to a signed Kirk Ferentz photo.
As you might guess, the original six-foot version is proudly displayed at the Iowa Northern Railway headquarters in Waterloo.
And rightly so.