Railroads serve up Christmas cheer with shows, festive railcars

A photograph of a train at night. The train is decorated with Christmas lights and holiday decorations.

Some U.S. and Canadian trains take a break from transporting freight around Christmas, delivering holiday cheer to communities instead.

Each November and December, Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU) and Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) deploy holiday trains across a small portion of their rail networks. The purpose of the trains is not only to celebrate the holiday season but also to aid local charities.

Canadian Pacific (CP) hosts two holiday trains, one that serves a route in Canada and one that serves both the U.S. and Canada. Each train starts in Montreal and travels for three and a half weeks in late November and December.

The routes are usually similar year after year, although some segments get visits every other year, such as when the train travels through southern Minnesota one year and southern and eastern Iowa the next.

At each of the over 150 stops the two trains make, CP donates money to the local food bank and hosts a 30-minute musical show. Spectators are encouraged to donate money or nonperishable items to a local food bank as well.

“Having the two trains enables us to reach more communities as part of the program,” said CP spokesperson Andy Cummings. CP has raised more than C$15.8 million and collected 4.5 million pounds of food since the trains started running in 1999. The railway estimates that it raised more than C$1.3 million this year and that it collected over 200,000 pounds of food for local food banks.

CP’s holiday train schedule works like this: A 1,000-foot train, pulling 14 railcars decorated with thousands of brightly colored lights, makes its way to a stop 15 minutes ahead of a scheduled showtime.

After the train arrives, a modified boxcar’s drawbridge-style doors fold down on each side, revealing a concert stage. This year’s musical acts included Tanika Charles, Terri Clark, Alan Doyle and Beautiful Band, Scott Helman, Madeline Merlo, Meghan Patrick, Kelly Prescott, Dallas Smith, and Vishtèn.

The musical acts play a free, 30-minute concert showcasing a mix of traditional holiday music plus some of the acts’ own songs. Also during that time, a local government official and the director of the food bank speak, and CP hands over a check to assist the food bank. Santa Claus doesn’t ride the train normally, but he has been known to stop by and sometimes dance with the band.

After the 30-minute set is finished, the doors lift, and the train travels to the next stop, passing people waiting at rail crossings just to see the brightly decorated train rumble by.

After the holiday trains complete their runs for the season, the railcars and the concert-stage boxcar are housed in Calgary, while the passenger cars remain business cars with the Royal Canadian Pacific chartered service. But the locomtives are general service locomotives that pull freight throughout the year.

At some of the daytime stops, communities take the children out of school and bus them to the holiday train.

“What the train is all about is the food banks, and that’s very much where our focus is. That said, my own personal favorite part of it is the kids that come out. We see a lot of kids up on Mom’s and Dad’s shoulders at these stops, and they really get into it,” Cummings said.

At Kansas City Southern (KCS), employees and volunteers staff the railroad’s annual Holiday Express that runs on KCS’ U.S. network. The Holiday Express makes its way down different KCS segments every year as a way to incorporate new communities that have never seen the train. The train stops in 20 communities across five states.

A photograph of a locomotive and railcars decorated with hundreds of holiday lights. The face of a Thomas the Train, a cartoon character, is attached to the front of a locomotive.
Kansas City Southern’s Holiday Express makes a stop. Image: Kansas City Southern

At each stop, visitors can board for free three of the six festively decorated railcars and visit with Santa Claus — who might also be a retired KCS employee — and Santa’s elves.

KCS’ Southern Belle business train leads the train, and decorations include the smiling tank car named Rudy, a flat car carrying Santa’s sleigh, reindeer and a miniature village, a gingerbread boxcar, an elves’ workshop, the reindeer stable, and a little red caboose.

KCS has been running the Holiday Express for 19 years. Each year, KCS makes a charitable contribution at each stop to the local Salvation Army. This year, the program distributed $170,450 to the Salvation Army at stops along the route. 

KCS was inspired to start the tradition of the Holiday Express after it bought a segment in 1997 that featured a Santa Train.

“In 2000, a group of KCS employees noticed that the Santa Train was the only Christmas some kids had, and that some kids did not have essential items like coats, hats and gloves, so they committed to elevating the project. In 2001, volunteers transformed a retired freight train to the KCS Holiday Express experience that thousands enjoy every year,” KCS said on its website.