Train Basics ABCs Of Railroading The making of a holiday train

The making of a holiday train

By David Lustig | December 15, 2022

All it takes is lights, Santa, and a hard-working crew

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from brands. Sign-up for email today!

Sanata waving from observation car platform

Making of a holiday train

Santa on decorated observation car platform
The Big Guy, himself, poses on the observation platform of the former-Santa Fe business car that was part of the Sierra Northern Railway’s holiday train. The train is visiting Saticoy, Calif. It is estimated that over 7,000 people visited the train on its trip from Oxnard to Piru, Calif. David Lustig

The excitement of a special holiday train might be lost in the eyes of adults, but not in a child. Especially, if he or she believes in Santa Claus.

As adults — we may not admit it — but we can still get caught up in the magic of seeing the “big guy” in his red suit with white trim spreading joy, excitement, and causing happy faces everywhere he goes.

He’s the classic figure we long ago cast aside with our childish whims, yet reality be damned, there he is, front-and-center, full of life and energy, delighting children everywhere. It’s a scene even Scrooge couldn’t ignore.

But to make this experience happen — having the big guy in the red suit make his grand entrance aboard a specially decorated train — isn’t something that just happens. It’s the culmination of weeks and sometimes months of planning, meetings, conferences, and coordination to get it “just right.” Let’s look at how one California short line pulled it all together.

Lights, camera, action!

holiday train at night
The Sierra Northern Railway holiday train arrives and people gather to see Santa. The train was pulled by a former-Union Pacific genset. The two baggage cars carried a generator for train lighting, all the toys collected for charity along the trip, and Santa’s candy cane supply. Alex Gillman

“The idea was planted during a conversation on a warm August day between the employees from Sierra Northern Railway and F&W Railway,” said SN Ventura Division Manager Matt Blackburn, current operator of 30 miles of former Southern Pacific right-of-way between Oxnard and Piru, Calif.

Fillmore & Western was the previous lessor of the line owned by the Ventura County Transportation Commission. When Sierra Northern acquired the lease earlier this year, F&W ceased operations as a railroad and became an equipment service company. SN wanted to continue its tradition of running a holiday train.

After Blackburn and his handful of employees decided they had the resources to do it, a call was made to corporate in Northern California. CEO Kennan Beard III thought it was a fine idea. Now all the Southern California crew had to do was make it happen.

Reality quickly set in. “We had the equipment, the uniforms, and the know-how,” Blackburn said. “Now we needed all the local help we could muster.”

The employees began preparing the rolling stock: a baggage car fitted with a generator, another one used as a collection point for the unwrapped gifts the children would bring so that Santa — in this case various online civic organizations and fire departments — could make sure everyone had something for Christmas. The crowning touch would be a former Santa Fe Railway Division Manager’s business car complete with an open-air observation deck, borrowed from the equipment company.

Blackburn and his small staff began making telephone calls and arranging meetings with city managers, chambers of commerce, police and fire departments, sheriffs, newspaper editors, and radio stations. Suggestions were made, advice given, schedules determined, and a timetable amenable to everyone was developed.

Behind the scenes

holiday passenger train in vineyard
Behind the scenes there is always a ton of work to make a special train happen. For the Sierra Northern Railway team, this included decorating the train, once it was assembled, and then sneaking it halfway across the railroad before Santa made his first appearance. Alex Gillman

Most of the railroad’s equipment is based at Fillmore, in the middle of the railroad. It had to be decorated, hidden (as much as possible) so as not to spoil the event, and then pre-positioned near Oxnard on the western end to start its eastward run.

The train, powered by a former Union Pacific diesel genset, pulled into its first stop near Montgomery Street just outside Oxnard on time. With the horn blaring and Santa waving, all you heard was children yelling.

It might have been chilly that evening, but to the thousands of visitors at most of the stops, no one seemed to mind. Explorer Scouts affiliated with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department assisted in crowd control and getting donated presents onboard while the jolly man was surrounded by the faithful — those eager to receive the candy canes that seemed to flow endlessly from his bag.

Saticoy, Calif., was next and another large crowd. The thousands of candy canes loaded onto the car previously would be down to a handful by the end of the run.

Enter Santa

crowd of people with Santa
It was a sea of smiles as Santa greeted everyone on his Sierra Nevada Railway journey. As the train arrived, the crowd filled in around the “Big Guy” to share in the holiday spirit. David Lustig

The third stop was Santa Paula, Calif., one of the larger towns in the area, and coincidentally, having its annual Christmas parade at the same time. Advanced planning dovetailed the train’s arrival with the end of the event at the former SP railroad station. This was all well and good except there was now a Santa problem.

The city’s parade had a Santa, and the railroad had a Santa. Previous events where two Santa’s happened to pop up at the same time was deemed cute by adults but confusing to many kids. How could there be more than one Santa?

Preplanning with John Marquez, the president of the Santa Paula Chamber of Commerce, solved the problem. The railroad’s Santa would stay hidden on board the passenger car while his Santa, fresh off the parade, would hop on and welcome the young ones. Sometimes it’s the little things.

The fourth and final stop for the night was back in Fillmore, Calif. Here the waiting crowd not only got Santa but a light show from the fire department.

Ultimately, all the collected toys were divided among local fire departments and chambers of commerce. It was a decent cache, too, with total crowd estimates reaching 7,000.

Will Blackburn and the railroad do it again next year?

“In a heartbeat,” he replied. “We got fantastic cooperation from every online community and civic organization. From babies to people in their 80’s we saw nothing but a sea of smiles.”

Group of people on observation car platform
Making of a holiday train — All you need is a hard-working crew, which for the Sierra Northern included: (from left to right) Nick Martinez, Gerald Riley (sitting down), Larry Jennings, Robb Whitaker, Luis Velazquez, Matt Blackburn (sitting in middle), Dan Phipps, Karina Aguilar, Cesar Cervantes, and Ken Van Fleet. David Lustig
You must login to submit a comment