All aboard for the 2017 BNSF Railway Special.

Close to 600 people were afforded the chance Thursday for one of two memorable train rides from Brainerd to Staples and back again.

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The opportunity for BNSF employees, their families and other special guests to board BNSF's vintage passenger rail cars comes around only every eight years.

"For the past 20 years, we have celebrated our employees for all their hard work that they do to keep their railway going," Jason Lamers, BNSF spokesperson who is based out of the company's Fort Worth, Texas office. "We have so many diverse employees who work hard to maintain the railroad, serve our customers and we want to thank them.

"The kids love it and families like to see some of the work their spouse does."

Families were able to tour the BNSF shops in northeast Brainerd-shops typically not open to the public. Families were able to see what their loved ones do at work, such as making parts for the railroad tracks or trains.

The Brainerd shops have about 100 employees who are machinists, electricians, boiler makers, laborers, carbon painters-each of whom belong to their own union.

Mike Osborne with the BNSF office in Topeka, Kan., said there are six full-time staff members and contractors who help make the train ride memorable and safe for folks. He said staff is from all over, but mostly from Kansas, Nebraska and Texas.

Staff helped around 300 people during each ride find a seat on one of several train cars. The train cars were named after rivers and some included Fox River, Red River, Colorado River and Powder River. One rail car, called Bay View, had an upper and lower deck for people to view during the two-hour ride. Some cars only had cushioned seats, while others had table and chairs or a booth. Walking through from car to car, people had to make sure there was no foot traffic, otherwise they wouldn't be able to get through, as there was not a lot of space in the rail cars.

Once everyone was seated, the train slowly got moving to 10 mph while it went through Brainerd and Baxter, with the conductor and engineer, from Superior, Wis., blowing the horn at every crossing.

With sunny blue skies and large windows from the train cars, employees and their families had a beautiful view of the scenery during the trip to Staples and back.

"This is a good trip," Jeff Schmid, BNSF special operations coordinator from the Lincoln, Neb., office said. "We usually run around 40-45 mph. Employees and their families really enjoy these trips.

"I worked for the railway for 40 ½ years and retired in 2009. I still work part-time."

Schmid said BNSF Railway has about 35-40 vintage passenger cars, which they call "business cars." The rail cars are only used for these special events and some are about 50 years old and one dates back to the 1930s. The rail cars came from the Great Northern Railway, Northern Pacific Railway, Burlington Northern Railway and Sante Fe Railway.

BNSF Railway is one of North America's leading freight transportation companies, with a rail network of 32,500 route miles in 28 states and three Canadian provinces. The railroad only transports passengers on these special employee days with their business cars, Lamers said.

Lamers said BNSF transports products and materials over the western two-thirds of the nation and moves those goods more safely and efficiently-on significantly less fuel with fewer emissions-than the all-highway alternative. He said it mainly hauls consumer products, such as toys and computer parts, industrial materials, such as coal and taconite and agricultural products, such as wheat.

Lamers said they plan to have more promotional employee rides for employees in Duluth and Twin Cities and then head to locations in Iowa, Illinois and North Dakota.

Employees and their families were enjoying the view Thursday.

Shane Collins, a machinist for 12 years at the BNSF Brainerd shop, brought his wife Joanna and their two children, Bridget, 11, and Henry, 7.

"It feels great to be recognized," Shane Collins said. "The family got to go to my work and see what I do. It's good for the kids to see what the railroad is all about.

"This is the only time they open the shops to the public."

The Collins and Bridget also went on the ride eight years ago, but Bridget was too young to remember.

"This is fun," she said. "Whenever I have a broken toy my dad fixes it."

"I want this ride to be longer," Henry said with a big smile.

Joanna Collins said, "It is nice for the railway to do this for their employees, it's very sweet of them."

Kelly and Bridget Larson of Pequot Lakes said this was their second ride on the BNSF employee ride. Kelly Larson is in his ninth year as a machinist at BNSF.

"It's nice that this brings all the families together," Kelly Larson said. "We have a chance to meet the other families and they get to learn more about what we do."

Jamie Cole of Baxter has been at BNSF for five years and he brought his three daughters and his mom with for the ride. Cole said he likes everything about his job. He said he is given a lot of freedom in designing parts for the frames and high lift equipment for the railroad. He said some projects take about six weeks to complete.

Kyle and Lori Cherne of Brainerd brought seven of their nine children. Kyle has been a laborer at the railroad for the past 2 ½ years. His dad also worked at BNSF but has retired and his brother, Derrick Cherne, also works there. The Chernes were having a fun family day enjoying the ride.

Brothers Herb and Joe Kometz and Jerry Smitten of the St. Cloud and Rice area also enjoyed the ride. This was the second time they've been on the special ride. Their fathers all worked on the railroad back in the day.

Joe Kometz, who has worked for BNSF for 39 years, said they were told to register for the ride and had to give their employee numbers. He said his is 60 years old. Joe Kometz said he remembers the train crash near Motley in 1984, but said he was not working that day. The train crash happened when two Burlington Northern coal trains collided hear-on near Motley, bursting into flames on a single track line, leaving three men dead.

BNSF Facts

• Length of network: 32,500

• States in network: 28

• Canadian provinces: 3

• Employees: 41,000

• Headquarters: Fort Worth, TX

• Ports served: 40

• Intermodal facilities: 25

• Average trains per day: 1,400

• Locomotives: 8,000

• Capital investment (2016): $3.9 billion

• Bridges: 13,000

• Tunnels: 89

• Grade crossings: More than 25,000

• Packages shipped on time during typical holiday season: 60 million

• Carloads shipped in 2016: 9.7 million

• Distance BNSF hauls 1 ton of freight on 1 gallon of diesel fuel: 500 miles

Additional Facts:

• In 2016, BNSF hauled 950,000 carloads of agricultural commodities.

• BNSF moves enough grain to supply 90 million people with a year's supply of bread.

• In 2016, 5.2 million intermodal shipments (truck trailers or containers) were transported on BNSF's rail lines instead of on the nation's congested highways.

• A new car or truck is loaded/unloaded onto a BNSF automobile train about every 11 seconds.

• BNSF has 1.3 million feet of track in intermodal facilities alone. If spread end to end, it would be the length of 9 1⁄2 Boston Marathons.

• In 2016, BNSF hauled 1.8 million carloads of industrial products.

• In 2016, BNSF moved more industrial products railcars than the entire population of Nebraska.

• Asphalt hauled by BNSF, is enough to lay a single lane road four times around the equator.

• In 2016, BNSF hauled 1.8 million coal shipments and hauls enough coal to power one of every 10 homes in the nation.

History

BNSF's history dates back more than 160 years to 1849, when the 12-mile Aurora Branch Railroad was founded in Illinois. Over the next several decades, many additional rail lines were built and eventually became part of what is today's BNSF Railway. Some of BNSF's predecessor railroads were Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe; Burlington Northern; Chicago, Burlington and Quincy; Frisco; Great Northern; Northern Pacific and Spokane, Portland and Seattle.

BNSF was created Sept. 22, 1995, from the merger of Burlington Northern, Inc., parent companies of Burlington Northern Railroad and Santa Fe Pacific Corporation of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.

On Feb. 12, 2010, BNSF became a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc.