CSX Santa Train will not run this year

Pandemic concerns leads to 'reimagining' as drive-through event at local store; railroad says train will return in 2021 if it is safe to do so
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The 2018 CSX Santa Train draws a crowd in Elkhorn City, Ky. The train will not run in 2020 because of COVID-19 concerns, although events will still be held along its route.
Chris Anderson
The 2017 Santa Train, the 75th running of the special, featured restored Clinchfield F7 No. 800 and SD45 No. 3632.
Chris Anderson

KINGSPORT, Tenn. — The CSX Santa Train, an Appalachian tradition for more than seven decades, will be sidelined this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least in its traditional form.

CSX and the Kingsport, Tenn., Chamber of Commerce announced Thursday that the Santa Train, held annually the Saturday before Thanksgiving in Eastern Kentucky, Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee, will not operate across CSX’s former Clinchfield Kingsport Subdivision due to concerns with the escalating pandemic. The Chamber says that, rather than Santa riding the rails to deliver gifts at more than a dozen designated stops, gifts will be distributed in a drive-through process from retail stores along the route operated by regional grocery giant Food City, one of the event’s primary sponsors. The new plan is being billed as a “reimagining” of the Santa Train. The decision halts a 77-year-old tradition of Santa riding the high iron to deliver gifts to Appalachian communities.

“The health and safety of our employees, volunteers, attendees and the community is always our top priority when we are planning the Santa Train. We decided it was in the best interests of all parties to rethink this year’s event amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” CSX Corporate Communications Vice President Bryan Tucker said in a statement. “We worked closely with our partners and are pleased to be able to provide a safe alternative to the traditional Santa Train that will bring joy and lift spirits during this challenging time.”

CSX spokesperson Cindy Schild tells Trains News Wire that the change in format is specifically for this year amidst the ongoing pandemic. She says the decision is “not cancelling the train, it’s not cancelling the tradition.” Schild also says the railroad is committed to putting the Santa Train back on the tracks in 2021 if it is safe to do so.

“This is a decision that is being made for this year,” Schild says. “The Santa Train has been running for 75 years and right now, there are no plans to end this long-standing tradition. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to reimagine how this train is experienced to spread some holiday cheer along the route in a safe way. That was the nature of the decision for this year and we’re glad we’re still able to spread some cheer and hand out some gifts on the route.”

The Santa Train tradition was started in 1943 by Kingsport Chamber and the Clinchfield Railroad. The train’s modern-day route extends from CSX’s Shelby Yard in Pikeville, Kentucky, south along the Kingsport Sub. Along the 100-plus-mile route to Kingsport, the train stops in several communities and draws massive crowds which gather in tight proximity at the rear of the train in an attempt to catch soft gifts tossed from Santa and others.

Last year, the train ran in rainy weather pulled by CSX’s F40PH2 locomotives. On the rear of the train, Santa stood and tossed gifts from the former Clinchfield office car No. 100, owned and restored by the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society and Museum in Johnson City, Tenn. The train’s 75th running in 2017 featured restored Clinchfield Railroad No. 800, an EMD F7 which was the Clinchfield’s first diesel-electric locomotive, and Clinchfield SD45 No. 3632 led the train. Also memorable was the 1992 Santa Train, which featured Union Pacific 4-6-6-4 Challenger steam locomotive No. 3985, dressed up as “Clinchfield No. 676.” It led the Santa Train and several other trips over the former Clinchfield route.

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