In less than a week, Hawkeye fans will flood into Kinnick Stadium, sporting their black and gold to cheer on the University of Iowa football team in its 2016 opener. About 5,000 of those fans will arrive at the stadium in the iconic passenger train known as the Hawkeye Express.
“There’s a lot of people that have ordered season tickets and they come to Kinnick Stadium on the train — that’s all they know,” said Mark Jennings, the associate director of athletics for donor and patron services. “I can’t think of any other school in the country that has anything like it.”
Jennings helped start the Hawkeye Express in 2004 as a way to alleviate traffic congestion around the stadium due to limited parking and requirements to keep the road open for emergency vehicles going to UI Hospitals and Clinic. Knowing that passenger trains used to bring fans to Kinnick and the team even traveled by train, Jennings decided to call his friend, Dan Sabin, at Iowa Northern Railway Co. to see if a passenger train would be feasible.
To Jennings’s surprise, Sabin called back a few days later with news that he’d gotten a Colorado ski train lined up for the fall.
“How are we going to do this?” Jennings said he thought after talking to Sabin.
But despite what seemed like a thousand moving parts it took to plan the logistics, the Colorado train transported fans down the Iowa Interstate Railroad that first fall, with help from the Iowa Northern Railway Co. crew and volunteers, Jennings said.
Due to large expenses of leasing the Colorado train for three years, UI decided to buy their own train, which was no walk in the park considering the rarity of passenger trains.
“It’s not easy to go out and buy a train, but Dan pulled it off,” Jennings recalled.
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This is the 10th season the current Hawkeye Express — painted black and gold in Oelwein, after making its way from the purchase site in Chicago — will escort UI fans to the stadium.
“We never did it to make money, all we did it for was to provide a service to our patrons,” Jennings said. “It makes your heart feel good when you see these little kids out there — they get so excited when they see it.”
Josh Sabin, Dan Sabin’s son and now director of administration for Iowa Northern Railway, said Hawkeye Express is less than 1 percent of what the company does, but it’s one of their most visible projects and something the employees look forward to as Hawkeye fans.
“Passenger trains aren’t a common occurrence, so to have this neat passenger train, on game day, going to Kinnick — it’s just this perfect element of game-day atmosphere,” he said.
He added that some people come just to ride the train even if they don’t have tickets.
Iowa Northern Railway has about six crew members and managers and a slew of volunteers that arrive at 5 a.m. for 11 a.m. kickoffs to help move the train safely, get people on and off the train, and maintain equipment, Sabin said.
The train is set to make its way from storage in Waterloo to Coralville about a week before the game.
“It’s just a sign to everyone that Hawkeye football is about to start,” Sabin said.
l Free parking is located in lots near Comfort Suites and Coral Ridge Mall.
l Before-game loading: Coralville Boarding Stop along Highway 6
l For 11 a.m. games, trips start just after 7 a.m.
l Trips for games starting 2:30 p.m. or later begin four hours before kickoff. After-game loading at Kinnick Boarding Stop below Melrose Avenue begins at the start of the fourth quarter and goes for 90 minutes after the game.
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l Cost is $12 round-trip ticket for adults, children 12 and under ride free. Advance tickets available at UI Athletics Ticket Office or can be purchased day-of at the Hawkeye Express depot at Coralville boarding stop along Highway 6.
l For riding information, go to http://smgs.us/3k93