Trains' 10 'must-see' holiday trains this year

Trains Industry Newsletter
Get a weekly roundup of the industry news you need.
By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine. View our privacy policy.
Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261 poses at St. Paul Union Depot in St. Paul, Minn., as it readies to pull the "North Pole Express."
Wisconsin & Southern's Polar Express train dead-heading through Zenda, Wis., on Nov. 15.
WAUKESHA, Wis. — Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and that means railroads large and small will soon be bringing out their Christmas, "Holiday," and "Santa" trains to celebrate the holiday season. For Class I railroads, these special trains are a way to directly interact with the public and focus on how railroads can be a positive force in the community. For tourist and heritage railroads, they not only generate goodwill, but profits during a period when the lines would normally be shut down.

Knowing there will be more than 100 holiday trains left off of such an exclusive list, we've made the Trains Map of the Month from December 2014 on "Santa Trains" available for a free download at the end of this article.

So here are Trains News Wire’s nominations for must see trains this season:

CSX Santa Train, Nov. 21, Shelby, Ky., to Kingsport, Tenn.
The granddaddy of Class I railroad holiday trains, the Clinchfield Railroad ran the first Santa Train in 1943 and it has been going ever since. The idea behind the Santa Train was to give children of the impoverished Appalachia region served by the Clinchfield, a little holiday cheer, with an appearance by Santa and toys given away from the rear platform of the train. But this year’s train, the 73rd, comes at a time when CSX is shutting down much of the former Clinchfield, making it a “must see” train this season. Each year the train has a celebrity guest and in 2015 it’s singer Meghan Linsey, a runner-up on NBC’s “The Voice” television show. More information is available from a Santa Train Facebook page maintained by the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce.

Canadian Pacific Holiday Train, Nov. 27 – Dec. 19, U.S. and Canada.
It’s hard to miss Canadian Pacific’s Holiday Trains. Adorned with thousands of lights, carrying a boxcar full of musical performers, and running through 150 communities, they’re the King Kong of holiday trains. This year the trains will cross the continent from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to Montreal to Port Moody, British Columbia, and from Chicago to Calgary. They run for a good cause too — CP makes donations to local food banks in the areas the trains visit. At each stop, the doors to a special boxcar, equipped with a stage, open and musicians play a free concert. Spectators are encouraged to make a donation to the local food bank — either a non-perishable food item or a cash donation. Each stop lasts about 30 minutes, and once the band plays its farewell show, the boxcar door closes, and the train slips off into the night on its way to the next stop. A complete schedule is available on Canadian Pacific's website.

North Pole Express, Nov. 20 – Dec. 20, Owosso, Mich.
If you like railroads and if you have ever seen the film The Polar Express, you know the engine that was prototype for the locomotive image, and whose sounds were used in the 2004 movie: Pere Marquette 2-8-4 No. 1225. So if you’re going to ride a holiday train, why not ride behind a steam engine that’s already been to Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole? Departing from Owosso, the Steam Railroading Institute offers four-hour excursions to the Village of Ashley’s Country Christmas. After a one hour train ride pulled by No. 1225, you step off the train into a circa-1950s Christmas experience. There is a two-hour layover in Ashley, then an hour-long trip back to Owosso. Of course, you can’t go wrong celebrating Christmas with a steam locomotive that has a road number of 12/25! More information is available from the Steam Railroading Institute's website.

Kansas City Southern Holiday Express, Nov. 27-Dec. 20.
If you like F-units (and who doesn’t?) then the Kansas City Southern Holiday Express is just the ticket. A classic A-B-A set of Fs clad in Southern Belle colors heads up the train that begins its 2015 run Nov. 27 in DeRidder, La., and ends Dec. 20 at Kansas City Union Station. At each stop, the KCS Charitable Fund makes a contribution of gift cards to the local Salvation Army to provide warm clothing and other necessities for children in need. The train includes cars from KCS’s business car fleet on the head end, followed by six specially decorated cars that make up the Holiday Express. After walking through two cars filled with displays, children receive a free gift bag from Santa in a special caboose, while their railfan parents can eye up the F-units on the head end of the train. Information is available from the railroad's website.

Friends of the 261 North Pole Express, Dec. 4-6, 10-13, St. Paul, Minn.
While the North Pole Express trips aren’t the longest runs on this list, they have two big factors going for them. No. 1 is Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261 decorated with Christmas lights and pulling trains every 90 minutes over the course of seven days. But another factor is the venue – the restored St. Paul Union Depot. The waiting room was lovingly restored after being closed for 41 years, and is a classic of railroad architecture. Kids can ride the trains to the east end of the depot grounds where Friends volunteers constructed Santa’s workshop, then Santa himself boards for the ride back to the station. The big event is the evening of Dec. 11, when the North Pole Express and CP’s Holiday train are at the depot at the same time. More information is available by visiting the Friends' website.

Holiday Express, Nov. 27-28, Dec. 5-6, 12-13, 19-20, Portland, Ore.
Milwaukee 261 isn’t the only 4-8-4 pulling holiday trains this season. The Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation’s Holiday Express will mark the return of Southern Pacific “Daylight” 4-8-4 No. 4449, which last operated in 2012. It’s making its debut after an extensive rebuild that will allow it to operate another 15 years. The Portland operations are unique in that they have two 4-8-4s to pull the trains: 4449 and Spokane, Portland & Seattle No. 700, which is presently down for its federally mandated overhaul. Like 261, No. 4449 is tastefully decorated with Christmas lights as it pulls trains through the night – Daylight at night! Visit the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation website for more details.

Amtrak Polar Express, Dec. 19-Jan. 3, 2016, Chicago
Even Amtrak has jumped into the holiday train game this year. It will be operating officially sanctioned Polar Express trains out of Chicago Union Station beginning Dec. 19 through Jan. 3. The one-hour trip through downtown Chicago replicates the film: the conductor will work his way through the train and punch passengers' "golden tickets," and hot chocolate and cookies are served as passengers read along with the Polar Express children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg.
Santa and his helpers then board to greet passengers and each guest is given a silver sleigh bell. During the trip, chefs on each car lead passengers in caroling and choreographed onboard entertainment — just like in the film. Information and details is available from Rail Events Productions' website.

Wisconsin & Southern Polar Express, Nov. 21-Dec. 27, Middleton, Wis.
We admit a bias toward EMD’s elegant E units, and while there are plenty of Polar Express operations this year, the Wisconsin & Southern out E’s them all with three streamlined units powering their trains. Operating out of Middleton, a suburb of Wisconsin’s state capital Madison, the nine-car train uses cars and locomotives from Iowa Pacific Holdings' extensive stable. This year former WSOR E9A 103 and E9B 102 (one of only two operating E booster units) are on one end of the train, while ex-Illinois Central E9A 101 is on the other. A mix of single level NJ Transit commuter cars, bi-level commuter cars, and Iowa Pacific single level cars from their Pullman Rail Journeys fleet round out the consist. More information is available on the railroad's website.

Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway Santa Claus Train, Dec. 6 and 20, Minerville, Pa.
The Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway operates an extensive schedule of Santa Trains pulled by Reading & Northern 4-6-2 No. 425. But on Dec. 6 and 20, you can get double the Santa steam experience when No. 425 doubleheads with Central Railroad of New Jersey 0-6-0 No. 113 – an early Christmas present for steam fans. No. 113 is one of only two surviving CNJ steam locomotives. More information is available at the Lehigh Gorge's website.

Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum Polar Express, Nov. 27-Dec. 23, Portland, Maine
Like the miniature trains that run around Christmas trees, narrow-gauge trains and the holidays seem to go together. While Colorado’s Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad also operates a Polar Express, we picked the less well-known Maine narrow gauge as our representative. There’s always been an aura of mystery about Maine’s two-foot gauge railroads, probably due to the fact that they virtually disappeared, but now are making a comeback thanks to operations such as the Maine Narrow Gauge Museum. Its Polar Express trains operate over 1.5 miles of track along Portland’s Casco Bay waterfront, but this will likely end soon as the operation is moving to Gray, Maine. Another Maine two-footer, the Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum will operate “Victorian Christmas” steam train rides on Dec. 19 in Alna, Maine. More information is available at the Maine Narrow Gauge website.

Downloadable File(s)
Leave a Comment
Want to leave a comment?
Only registered members of are allowed to leave comments. Registration is FREE and only takes a couple minutes.

Login or Register now.
Please keep your feedback on-topic and respectful. Trains staffers reserve the right to edit or delete any comments.


Complex railroad locations.

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy
Subscribe Up To 54% off the newsstand price!
Subscribe To Trains Mag Today