Volunteers pitch in for CSX’s Santa Train

Packing parties help prepare gifts for annual trip through Appalachia
RELATED TOPICS: EAST | CSX | RAILFANING | PEOPLE
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Dozens of volunteers congregate at a grocery store in Kingsport, Tenn., to package food, candy, and treats for children along the Santa Train route.
Chris Anderson
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CSX Santa Train schedule
CSX Transportation via Facebook
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A box filled with wrapped Moon Pies ready for packing into smaller bags for children.
Chris Anderson
KINGSPORT, Tenn. — By the time St. Nick dismounts CSX’s Santa Train on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year, more than 15 tons of gifts will have left the train — some tossed from the rear platform, others given out by-hand at The Santa Train’s stops along its 110-mile route through Appalachia.

But if not for a small army of volunteers, none of those gifts would make their way to the hundreds of people that flock trackside year after year on Santa Train day.

Now in its 76th year, CSX Transportation’s Santa Train, the railroad’s premiere public relations event, has grown into a Herculean effort. The event spans several states — not only in its scheduled run from Kentucky through Virginia, and on to Tennessee, but also in the preparation of the gifts for which the Santa Train is famous for tossing to hundreds of fans.

A packing party is held in Jacksonville, Fla., near CSX’s headquarters, where stuffed animals, clothing and other items are prepared for Santa Train day. More visible to the public, however, is the packing party in Kingsport, where food and treats are readied for Santa’s long journey across the north end of the former Clinchfield Railroad.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Santa Train sponsorship for regional grocery chain Food City, along with CSX, the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce, and others. And each year, one of Food City’s Kingsport locations hosts the packing party, held outside the store. This year’s packing party was held Nov. 14, the Wednesday before Santa Train.

Food City store Manager Raymond Stockard says that between 75 and 80 volunteers took part in this year’s packing party outside of his bustling store.

It’s a precision operation. Like the Santa Train, itself, the Kingsport packing party is controlled chaos, with constantly moving parts, and an operation in which everyone that is involved has a role to play.

Dozens of volunteers from local civic groups and school organizations, and even pageant princesses and queens, line either side of a long assembly line where packages of sweets, chips, crackers, and any other type of small, packaged food imaginable are opened and separated into individual totes. Volunteers then take those products and begin assembling small, individual bags full of food to be distributed to the Santa Train’s crowds. A bag of chips, some candy, a Little Debbie cake and even an iconic Moon Pie — the pièce de résistance of Santa Train day treats — can be found in the individual food bags.

Hundreds of empty boxes are broken down for recycling by a group of local high school students sitting under a Food City truck trailer parked adjacent to the conveyor. Helping make a festive atmosphere, the students pass the time by singing Christmas carols, or, as young high schoolers tend to do, talk and laugh loudly and cheerfully.
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A volunteer shows off embroidery promoting the CSX Santa Train.
Chris Anderson
The loaded food bags make their way down the assembly line and are transferred into yet another tote — this time they’re sealed inside — and are loaded onto the truck trailer for the next day’s delivery to the deadheading Santa Train, awaiting delivery of the food at the former Clinchfield freight depot in Kingsport.

After being loaded onto the train, the food joins plush toys, clothing and other items, and travels 110 miles northbound to Shelby Yard outside of Pikeville, Ky., where Saturday’s Santa Train kicks off.

“None of what you’ll see with the Santa Train would be possible without our volunteers, our vendor sponsors, and the Santa Train’s sponsors … CSX, the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, Appalachian Power, and, of course, Food City,” Stockard says.

Stockard became emotional as he spoke about his predecessors, including his mentor, former Food City store manager Ed Moore, who were instrumental in getting Food City involved with the Santa Train. He said even with the minor disruption the packing party may cause for his busy store, the effort is worth it for the joy of children who may receive some of the items packed at the packing party.

Frank Waldo, a local volunteer in the Tri-cities area of eastern Tennessee, serves as Santa’s lead elf on the Santa Train. All of the food and gifts packed up for distribution from the rear platform of the train will eventually go through Waldo before they are tossed to the crowds at the train’s stops. A kind soul whose charitable heart has led him to help operate a free dental ministry in his daily life, Waldo is all business on Santa Train day, so the efforts of the volunteers at the packing party are not lost on him. Their hard work and efficiency help make the chaos of Santa Train day significantly more manageable.

“You don’t have time to do all of this on the Santa Train. It needs to be pre-staged,” Waldo says. “It thrills my heart to see the community show up and take part. It’s a labor of love for many of them.”

The 76th annual CSX Santa Train is set to run Saturday, Nov. 17.

More information is available online. 
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