Railroads & Locomotives Tourist Railroad Profiles Travel: The allure of holiday trains

Travel: The allure of holiday trains

By Brian Solomon | November 1, 2023

Rolling along in frosty darkness with a warm drink in hand

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Holiday trains

yellow trolley in the snow at night
Take a ride under wire through snow, ice, and 15,000 colored lights. The Connecticut Trolley Museum at East Windsor holds its annual Winterfest and Tunnel of Lights from the end of November to the end of December. This event is celebrating its 45th year in 2023. Brian Solomon

The winter holiday season is a wonderful time to experience rail travel and to create memories that will last a lifetime. This is the busiest season for many tourist railroads and long-distance passenger carriers including Amtrak. Some tourist railroads rely entirely on special holiday trains to get them through the lean months that follow. Some even carry more passengers in a few weeks on snow excursions, Santa trains, Polar Express journeys, and other seasonally themed trips than they do during the rest of the regularly scheduled year.

I’ve always loved the holiday season. It’s a time to travel and photograph trains, and I’ve found that trains in the snow make for some of the most alluring images. Yet, I’ve always wondered what makes this time special for others. Let’s find out.

A former CSX conductor told me that while he’d have preferred to be home with his family during the holidays instead of being on the railroad, when working during the holidays, his crew would turn the classification lamps on the front of the locomotive in a simple celebration of the season: one to green and the other to red. The class lights were a legacy of the train order era that ended in the 1980s. However, the lights remained on many older former Conrail locomotives.

The holidays are a time for families to be together. Dave Swirk, president and general manager of Conway Scenic Railroad said, “I love to see families traveling for a holiday event. The special trains are an opportunity for families to travel together and it’s touching to see parents, grandparents and kids all enjoying a train trip with one another.”

Photographer Oren B. Helbok — who has been photographing trains in the snow since 1972 — says holiday trains give folks nostalgia, even those who don’t remember the olden days.

“Traveling by train in the winter takes them back to a time they wished they had lived in,” he says.

brown train car with people in holiday decor in the windows
Massachusetts’ Cape Cod Central is one of several excursion lines around the country that hosts the popular high-energy Polar Express seasonally themed trains. These often sell out night after night, so get your tickets early! Brian Solomon

Holiday trains are far more than an American phenomena. My friend Markku Pulkkinen wrote to me about Christmas trains in his native Finland, where people believe that Santa lives in Finnish Lapland, an area famous for its reindeer. Long-distance passenger trains, run by the VR Group, tend to be booked up to the holidays and television stories show “crowds of travelers heading for holidays boarding full trains at Helsinki main station.” Every year it is reported how “Santa Claus starts his journey from Lapland in a sled pulled by a reindeer.”

Markku continued, “I have one special Christmas train memory. I used to teach in a school about a hundred miles (160 km) from my home town Oulu. There was a tradition to celebrate the end of autumn term and beginning of Christmas holiday in the local church at midnight. Our pupils and the school choir had prepared a solemn program like singing spiritual songs, reading the Bible etc. The vicar gave a speech. There was a very nice Christmas atmosphere with candles and decoration. The following morning I traveled home, usually by train. There was a surprise on the train one year. Santa himself in his red gown with fur lining, carrying a sack, wandered up and down the train passing out candies to passengers. He repeated his round after every station stop to cheer up new passengers. I must say I was in a Christmas mood at my destination after the previous night´s celebration and the Santa aboard the train. I learned later that the VR had arranged this in cooperation with a charitable organization.”

Seasonally, VR runs a night train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi called the Santa Claus Express (although sometimes this name refers to all night trains to destinations in Finnish Lapland). Rovaniemi is located at the Arctic Circle, and among the attractions is the world famous Santa Claus Village and train. Both are popular at this time of year when daylight is scarce in the far north.

Many years ago, on my first visit to Finland I traveled this route. It was mostly in daylight and in September, rather than December. However, I found that even in late summer the Arctic offers a cosmic charm.

Whether to the Arctic or closer to home, a big part of the cosmic allure of holiday trains (long-distance or themed excursions) is the festive experience they offer when rolling along in frosty darkness. With warm drinks in hand, imagine passing landscapes where snow cover masks the intrusions of the modern world. Notice the distant twinkling lights of towns and cities, as you pass by holiday decorations that invoke strong feelings of simpler, earlier times.

Feelings that will stay with you for a lifetime.

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