This story is a part of News Channel 11’s special coverage of the 80th anniversary of the Santa Train. These stories and many more can be watched on Thursday during our 1-hour documentary covering all aspects of the event. For more stories on the Santa Train’s return, visit the Santa Train: Celebrating 80 Years tab above.
SHELBY, Ky. (WJHL) – For the volunteers aboard the Santa Train, work begins months before the wheels touch the rail. But the real action — the kind that makes lifelong memories — starts hours before the final voyage. After a News Channel 11 crew rode the train, you can ride along as well.
The Day Before – Friday
4 p.m. – The Santa Train Experience starts with dinner and a safety briefing. This is where each rider checks in and enters the CSX Railroad Police bubble for the duration of their trip. Each ride is a sample of who’s who in the Tri-Cities, and you’ll be rubbing elbows with chairpersons, board members and branch owners throughout the night.
In previous years, dinner was served on rails as the entire party rode their way to Pikeville, Kentucky for a hotel stay. In 2022, dinner took place at The Social in Kingsport. Soon afterward, the entire party was loaded into several coach buses for a two-hour ride north.
8 p.m. – Buses full of “Santa Train” chanting adults flood into the year’s hotel of choice. Social guests stay awake well into the night, but many settle in for the early morning ahead. Pre-booked hotel rooms come with a goodie bag.
The Day Of – Saturday
4 a.m. – You wake up. Somehow. A long day means an early start, so buses begin picking up crews around 4:45 in the morning. Every piece of luggage that you want to end up in Kingsport is loaded onto the train, and you embark on a marvel of engineering.
6 a.m. – Crews are on board, and the opulent interior of the Santa Train likely exceeds any ideas you had about it before. Rich wood trim pieces, plush seats and lighting evocative of a theatre are distributed from front to back. The occasional chandelier makes an appearance as well. There are full kitchens on board to provide a hot breakfast to every volunteer, crew member and passenger.
Once everyone is situated and ready to roll, the whole beast comes to life. Steam and smoke billow. Steel strains against its instinct to stay cold and immobile. The entire mechanical beast shudders and then lurches to life. Connections slam together with hundreds of tons behind them, and it really sinks in that this isn’t just a long, cramped building. This self-contained world moves.
6:10 a.m. – The first part of the journey begins at Marrowbone, only a short ride away from your start in Shelby, Kentucky. Crowds are relatively small, and it’s still pitch-black outside. This is where the difference between media passengers and volunteer passengers becomes apparent. Media, if cleared to disembark, are mixed in and recording the whole ordeal.
Volunteers make their way to appointed stations — found on the back of their provided nametags — and prepare for a near-military operation as the train slows. Totes full of toys, books, blankets and other gifts are emptied into IKEA bags and passed to each volunteer like paratroopers waiting for the drop light.
6:20 a.m. – Zero Hour. The train stops, doors open and CSX employees climb down onto the tracks and set up a step stool for dozens of people to lower themselves onto. Every person is required to keep at least three points of contact with the train at all times, meaning two feet and a hand if stationary or a foot and two hands if climbing. Following those strict guidelines, the train empties her crew and cargo.
Cardboard boxes full of age and gender-coded backpacks are offloaded into the waiting hands of volunteers on the ground. Those backpacks are handed off to passing volunteers, who wade into the crowd and give them out. The toy-bag elves do the same, making their way into the edges and outskirts to make sure every child gets a gift.
From the back car, Santa and his helpers are fed a constant stream of gifts by a dedicated loading team while Mr. Claus and Co. throw them to the crowd. As a rule, hard items like wooden toys and plastic pieces are handed down to nearby children.
Nearby, a moving truck full of toys opens up behind the crowd. This helps draw people safely away from the train and makes doubly sure that everyone gets a gift.
6:33 a.m. – A deafening horn blows, letting all volunteers know that they have two minutes to get back onto the train before they get left behind. The train waits for very few people, and CSX has a dedicated vehicle to gather those who missed their chance and ferry them to the next stop.
At the sound, every train passenger begins to cut their way back through the crowd and onto the rear cars.
6:35 a.m. – The train departs. Those not on board are left behind and scooped up by CSX rail police, and those onboard begin preparing gifts for the next stop. Each location is allotted a set number of toy totes, backpacks and wrapping paper tubes to ensure that everyone gets their share.
This process repeats itself 12 more times before you arrive in Kingsport, the final station for the Santa Train. Throughout the journey you’ve likely spent much of your time getting out of other people’s way, waiting for others to get out of your way or trying to figure out the exact timeline of what comes next. The relatively cramped hallways and rapid-fire schedule have you yearning for wide-open spaces.
Thanks to the hardworking staff of CSX and the tireless effort of Santa Train volunteers, the event has gone off without a visible hitch. Some complications like traffic jams and scheduling hiccups do arise, but by the end of the day, it’s all been smoothed over. Passengers are offloaded as quickly as they were pulled on, and a luggage drop-off point makes sure that all they have left to do is get to the closest warm bed.