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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.
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”.