U.S. and Canada: There is always something magical about Christmas train travel

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; November 29, 2021

Those who are well informed are aware as of Thanksgiving Day we are now in the midst of the Christmas holiday travel season. As the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ended in New York City and Santa Claus was the end feature of the parade, the Christmas season was officially underway.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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