U.S. and Canada: The magic of Christmas train travel on Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada

Internet image.

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; December 13, 2023

Those who are well informed are aware we are now in the midst of the Christmas holiday travel season. Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada trains are booked by those who choose to travel in a more sensible and humane way versus the soul-crushing rush of airports and cramped jet airplanes and the endless annoyances of the great North American highways.

Toy Trains Magazine cover, December 1951. Internet image.
In war-torn Budapest in 1942 a Hungarian boy enjoys his miniature train under the Christmas tree. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A Lionel train and its pint-size engineer under the glow of the Christmas tree lights. Unknown artist; internet image.

Christmas and passenger trains for well over a century have been the most natural of pairings. Many of us from an early age joyously watched a Lionel or HO (these days likely an N Scale) train making endless circles under a Christmas tree. Some of us still have those same model trains more than six decades later.

Typical Christmas card with a railroad theme for traveling for the holiday. Internet image.
Christmas card titled “Christmas Eve.” Internet image.

In addition to model trains, the nearly lost tradition of exchanging Christmas cards still today popularly features both steam and diesel locomotives pulling passenger trains through snow-laden scenes with festive holiday decorations. Smiling passengers and waiting families on snowy station platforms greet holiday travelers burdened with wrapped gifts and luggage.

Working mail and express in 1925. Internet photo.
1930s and lots of mail and express. Internet photo.
1913 U.S. postage. Wikimedia Commons image.
1966 U.S. postage. Wikimedia Commons image.

Those of us who traveled by train before the Johnson Administration tore the U.S. Mail contracts away from the railroads and gave them to the airlines and truckers remember delayed train departures at major stations because multiple baggage wagons loaded with sacks of mail had to be loaded onto mail and baggage cars. In those halcyon times it cost less than a nickle to mail a full-size Christmas card and it wasn’t unusual for typical families to mail more than a hundred cards each year. The railroads, greeting card companies and Post Office prospered handsomely from those de rigueur holiday greetings. For those who are younger, you may not believe it that during the days leading up to Christmas Day it was not unusual for the Post Office to make two deliveries a day to home addresses because of the burden of so much Christmas mail.

A festive Christmas season Canada Post mail delivery truck in 2009. Wikimedia Commons photo.
In 1923 the U.S. mails were often hand-delivered by a walking mailman. Wikimedia Commons photo.
In the early 1970s Amtrak offered a special Christmas dinner in its dining cars. Internet image.

As has been reported in this space earlier this year, every railroad dining car had special Christmas holiday meals, each more joyous for foodies of the day than the next. Many other spaces in the train were also festively decked out for the holidays, too.

Denver Union Station in its traditional Christmas season colors. Wikimedia Commons photo.
VIA Rail Canada’s Central Station in Montreal has a tradition of Christmas decorations. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Train stations always joined in the festivities with decorations of the season. Some became famous for their Christmas messages such as Denver Union Station which has been memorialized in iconic photography. Other major terminals and stations throughout North America went to great expense and bother to erect giant Christmas trees and accompanying decorations to celebrate the season.

Washington Union Station dressed for Christmas. Internet photo.

Typical of the holiday season, from Thanksgiving through New Years, railroads had every available piece of operating rolling stock on the rails to meet the holiday travel demand. Railroads realized the importance of the holiday to their travelers and did their best to make holiday travel a memorable experience.

Every railroader – from car knockers to car cleaners to station agents to reservation agents to train and engine crews to onboard services crews (both railroad and Pullman Company) to dispatchers – knew at the end of the Christmas season they would be exhausted from performing the duties required of them to move a nation traveling for the holidays. It was what was expected, and it was what happened. Yes, lots of hard work, but the satisfaction of knowing a job well done.

Chessie, kittens and Santa, 1938 for the C&O Railroad. Internet image.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad’s famous mascot, Chessie the cat, was a favorite holiday fixture for the C&O’s publicity department, advertising the comfort and reliability of train travel for Christmas. Chessie today lives on through the C&O Historical Society and their annual calendar featuring the many exploits of Chessie and Peake, her mate, whether it was doing their bit for the war effort in World War II or just generally promoting train travel.

A little battle-worn and waiting for restoration; the traditional green Railway Express Agency truck. REA made home and office deliveries, just like UPS and FedEx does now. Internet photo.
A vintage early 20th Century advertising image for Railway Express Agency. Internet image.

The truck stopping in front of your home to deliver Christmas packages wasn’t from the not-yet-invented FedEx, but rather was the familiar green REA Express truck with the red logo. Many people are not aware the dormant Railway Express Agency federal operating authorities were purchased and put to good use for the beginning of Federal Express, which relies on its own fleet of jet airplanes and trucks to move today’s Christmas packages.

File illustration.

For those of us who traveled during the holiday times there was always a special excitement in the air to be traveling for the holidays. Trains were packed – and the usual stresses were evident – but to a child traveling at Christmas it was always magical.

Amtrak in the past has risen to the demand of the Christmas travel season, adding extra equipment to meet the demand, decorating stations, and some OBS crews adding their own dining car Christmas decorations. It’s still a festive time on the train even though the Christmas celebration has devolved into the generic holiday season celebration or the even more anti-climatic Winter break.

No matter who is operating today’s trains, Christmas season travel is still hopeful and fun. Since – as always – passenger trains do not recognize any holidays as days not to operate, holiday travel is still a time for railroad employees to keep things going at their own expense of being home with their families while being out on the railroad or nearby keeping a station open or maintenance facility operating.

A Santa Fe conductor in 1965 signals the locomotive engineer to depart the station. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Dinner in the diner, no matter what railroad, was always a special part of holiday travel. Internet image.
A typical dining car crew for the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and most other railroads: four in the kitchen, seven waiters handling 48 passengers and a steward in charge of the car. Internet photo.
The Pullman sleeping car porter; the front line of passenger service and safe travel. Internet photo.

Railroad employees always have been – and remain – hero employees who sacrifice their time with their families and loved ones so the rest of us can safely reach our destinations and holiday celebrations. This year will be no different.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on November 29, 2021 and again in December 2022. It has been updated with photographs and illustrations added. – Corridorrail.com Editor

Food is the essence of life. Internet image.
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