Railroads & Locomotives Tourist Railroad Profiles Twelve unique holiday train rides

Twelve unique holiday train rides

By Kevin Gilliam | November 16, 2023

All hands on deck, holiday cheer en route

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Unique holiday train rides

soldiers standing in front of train with Santa
Members of the Military Railroad Society pose with an observation car and the big guy at Fort Eustis, Va., the home of the U.S. Army’s railroad training program. Kevin Gilliam

With the holiday season approaching, tourist railroads and museums around the country are ramping up for what is now the busy season. The winter was the time to start prepping equipment for off-season maintenance, in order to be ready for springtime operations, but no longer. Holiday-themed trains are now big business, and these days, it’s often the difference between a down season and one in the black financially.

Starting with the Lionel trains around the Christmas tree, and reinforced with movies like Polar Express, trains are a huge part of the holiday experience, and the tourist railroad industry has caught onto the fact that people with cash to burn in search of a fun time translates to many people in seats of passenger cars and a bunch of sold out trains. Nowadays, November and December are “all-hands-on-deck” months as the Christmas season pushes everyone to their limits, making those special moments come to life for children of all ages.

These days, it seems like virtually every tourist railroad and museum has some sort of Christmas-themed event. The Polar Express train rides are always popular, and then there are multiple variations of the North Pole Limited, the Santa Train, and the (insert here the name of the holiday train at your favorite tourist railroad).

From the popular British-style Train of Lights to even more creative ideas, here are a few, in no particular order, of what we think are the most unique holiday train rides to be found in the United States. With as many holiday trains operating, I’m sure we’ve left off a few, so if your favorite doesn’t get a mention, let us know in the comments section.

man dressed as train conductor stand between train and platform
Holiday Nostalgia Train. New York Transit Museum

1. Steam Railroading Institute – Owosso, Mich.  – The North Pole Express

A regular train ride, even one pulled by a 2-8-4 Berkshire steam locomotive, probably the largest steam locomotive operating Santa Trains in the U. S., usually wouldn’t be enough to qualify for this list, but when the engine is No. 1225 — the model for the engine used in the Polar Express film — we’ll call this acceptable criteria. The Steam Railroading Institute doesn’t operate The Polar Express anymore, preferring to operate their own North Pole Express instead, but tickets for this special event are at a premium and sell out very fast. Operating in Michigan, it’s also a fairly good chance that at least some of the runs will have snow.

2. Royal Gorge Route Railroad – Canon City, Colo. – Santa Express Train

50,000 lights in the North Pole exhibit is pretty impressive on its own, but the reason that Colorado’s Royal Gorge Route railroad makes the list, like Steam Railroading Institute, is the motive power. The specially-painted SD40-3 diesel has gold-leaf paint with over 300 snowflakes, 40 pine trees, and, of course, Santa’s sleigh and reindeer. The creative painting effort took 5,000 hours to complete. The one-of-a-kind paint scheme looks like a rolling Christmas present and thoroughly embodies the holiday spirit of “well-done gaudy”.

3. Gray Granite Railroad – Glastonbury, Conn. – North Pole Express

An under-the radar operation near Hartford, the Gray Granite Railroad allows parents with a little bit of planning ability to do something really special for their children. They have early drop-offs of pre-wrapped gifts. This way, when Santa comes through, he can call out the child’s name and gives them the gift that they really want for Christmas.

4. Operation Sgt. Santa – Fort Eustis, Va.

Now back for its third year, the Military Railroad Society offers Santa Trains at Fort Eustis, Va., in the tidewater region of eastern Virginia for military families. To participate in this event, someone in your family must have a pass to get on Joint Base Eustis-Langley, as the event transpires on an active military base.

5. Dollywood – Pigeon Forge, Tenn. – Smoky Mountain Christmas

With a full theme park and Dolly Parton behind it, you know this has to be good. The park is filled with shows, music, food, and everything else a theme park can offer at Christmas, plus more than six million lights are displayed on the grounds. Oh yes, how about a narrow-gauge steam train? Yes, they have that also.

6. Tweetsie Christmas – Blowing Rock, N.C.

Another theme park with narrow-gauge steam trains, both Tweetsie Railroad and Dollywood shared common ownership at one point in the distant past. The North Carolina attraction has over a million lights along the ride, and the Tweetsie Village is transformed into a Christmas town with shows, a gingerbread house where the kids can meet Santa and an outdoor fire for roasting s’mores in the North Carolina mountains.

7. Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad – Garibaldi, Ore. – Candy Cane Express

Operating steam train rides along Oregon’s coast, the main attraction here for the kids is the ability to write letters and postcards to Santa Claus. After the ride, Santa comes by to collect the postcards, hand writes a response, and mails the postcards back to the children. Getting a postcard from Santa Claus is enough to make this worth the list.

8. CSX Santa Train – Shelby, Kent. to Kingsport, Tenn.

Celebrating its 81st anniversary, the CSX Santa Train operates over the former Clinchfield Railroad between Shelby, Kentucky and Kingsport, Tennessee over a 110-mile long route that has been called the World’s Longest Christmas Parade. Sponsored by Appalachian Power, Food City, the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce and Soles4Souls, the Santa Train pauses briefly in 13 locations to pass out literally tons of gifts to the children of the area. The 2023 trip will operate on Saturday, Nov. 18.

9. CPKC Holiday Train and Holiday Express

After the merger of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern, three trains will tour the system between Nov. 20 and Dec. 19. Collecting donations for food banks, the trains have raised over $22.5 million and collected over 5 million pounds of food since the first train operated in 1999. Covered in lights with music playing at stops, this year two separate trains will cover Canada and the U.S. across the sprawling CPKC system. In addition, the KCS Holiday Express will cover even more territory.

10. New York City Transit Museum – New York City, N.Y. – Holiday Nostalgia Rides

While not specifically a Christmas train in the normal sense, this one is too good to leave off the list. On Saturdays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, eight cars dating back to the 1930s will operate special rides over the New York City subway system between the Uptown F Line platform at 2nd Avenue, and the Downtown D Line platform at 145th Street, making several intermediate stops.  In addition, the museum’s holiday train show will be available at Grand Central Terminal.

11. Roaring Camp Chanukah Train – Felton, Calif.

It is called the Holiday season since there is more than one, and this might be the first of its kind in the U.S. Hanukkah, is the eight-day Jewish festival of lights beginning on Dec. 7 and running until Dec. 15. On Dec. 7 at sundown, Roaring Camp will light a Menorah and then operate a Chanukah Train through Santa Cruz, Calif. In addition, Roaring Camp also has its Holiday Lights Train and Holiday Tree Walk for those celebrating Christmas.

12. Niles Canyon Railway – Sunol, Calif. – Train of Lights

A popular British tradition, the Niles Canyon Railway in California is one of several places in the U.S. that wraps the entire train with lights for a festive trip down the tracks. Operating between Niles and Sunol, Calif., the glowing train makes a splendid sight winding through the canyon.

Like this article, check out “Holiday trains & Polar Express rides (2023)” or “New Year’s Eve rides you’ll remember.”

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