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Huntington hosts new Holiday Express Train

By DAVE LAVENDER

The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — In his red Santa shirt that read “Don’t Stop Believing,” 5-year-old Colin Roe anxiously peered out the train windows at the world passing by.

Train conductor Leonard L. Claytor checks tickets as passengers travel on the Huntington Holiday Express on Sunday.
(Herald-Dispatch photo by Ryan Fischer)

“I just saw an Army helicopter and a million trains,” reported his excited 7-year-old cousin Alexander Toler.

Before they knew it, the boys’ attention swung away from the windows and passing rivers and houses, cars, factories and woods.

Right before their eyes and walking up the aisle was a real Amtrak train conductor, L.L. Claytor, who appeared through an opened door to punch their train tickets.

And right behind Claytor, was the big man himself – Santa Claus.

For little ones like Roe and Toler, from the Gallipolis, Ohio, area, the “Believing” has been oh so easy this week aboard Huntington’s first Holiday Express, which wrapped up its 13-ride, four-day run on Sunday.

Organized by the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society Inc., in conjunction with Amtrak, the train has brought a whole lot of that child-like Polar Express-like magic of a Christmas train to the hearts of hundreds of children of all ages who boarded for the hour-long round-trip from Huntington to Barboursville and back.

After teaming up with some local groups during Christmas 2015 aboard the non-moving rail car at Heritage Station, the Railroad Historical Society (which runs a dozen or so excursions a year) worked with Amtrak and CSX to get a moving holiday-themed tourist trip out of Huntington.

A St. Albans, W.Va., resident who has worked for Amtrak for 48 years, Claytor said this four-day Holiday Express run has brought much joy as little kids have gotten to take perhaps their first real train trip – and visit Santa, too.

“Most of the kids probably haven’t been on a train, and you can tell the difference and see that excitement when the train starts moving,” Claytor said with a smile. “Of course, the most excitement is when the conductor comes through and starts punching the tickets and Santa Claus is right behind him.”

As is the case with Christmas itself, part of the magic of Santa is the joy of sharing and giving in the hearts of his many elves. And elves were a’plenty (about 30 volunteers a day), manning the ticket booth and hot chocolate-making station at CSX Transportation Building, where folks boarded the five-car train. On board, volunteers such as Cindy Bennon, Robin and Ed Combs and Sandy and Jerry Chapman helped hand out hot cocoa and cookies, as well as clean up and even sing and fill the cars with Christmas cheer.

Passengers, many of whom came decked out in their Christmas pajamas, sat in the first three cars, whose interiors were decorated with festive Christmas drawings and coloring book scenes from kids at Fairland East Elementary.

Near the back of the train was The Deering car, where Santa, Mrs. Claus and the elves got the bags of toys and gifts ready to hand out to the kids. Children on the train got an ornament, a stuffed animal, a coloring book and a bell from Santa. Adults received a Holiday Express souvenir tote bag.

Ella Nease, Katie Losh and Lexi Bart, three ninth-grade students from Cabell Midland High School, helped Santa hand out gifts to the kids Sunday afternoon.

“For me, I like to work with kids, so just interacting with the kids is a lot of fun,” Nease said.

Jerry Chapman, who worked the train on Friday and Sunday, said when they stopped the train at Barboursville (just past where workers are clearing for a new shopping development), he had kids on the lookout for Rudolph and his trademark red nose in the sky while the engineer walked to the opposite end to get in the other engine and pull the train back to Huntington.

“We tell the kids that Rudolph is going to come from that end of the locomotive to this end, so watch along this side of the track, and they watch and watch and watch. When they get tired and look away and I’ll go, ‘There he went!’ And then the next thing you know, the engineer is in the other cab, and we’re moving again,” said Chapman with a laugh. “I’ve had a ball with it.”

Santa and Mrs. Claus also seemed to have a jolly good time spreading Christmas cheer and hope among kids from 1 to, well, almost 92.

“Bye, baby,” Mrs. Claus said to an infant before addressing some older kids on the 1:30 p.m. Sunday trip. “Don’t worry, kids, only seven more days to be good.”

Walking down the aisle on that Sunday afternoon trip, Santa stopped to greet Jaxon Kennard, 5, and Brooklyn Belcher, 4, and then to talk sweetly to their great-grandmother, Roberta “Bobbie” Johnson, 81, of Flatwoods, Ky., who has dementia, but who the family takes along on trips with them.

Chris Lockwood, general manager and trip chairman at the Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society, said they haven’t heard anything negative about the 13 trips, which had nine sell-outs and others that were almost sold out, thanks to walk-up ticket buyers.

The reaction from the Tri-State has been such that Lockwood said they hope to have another Holiday Express about the same time next year.

It would be the first time that Huntington has had two years of a holiday excursion train trips, since the now-defunct Mountain State Mystery Train organized Santa’s Pajama Party Express Train Rides in 2004 that only lasted that year.

“Knowing what we’ve done this year, we will adjust for next year, so we can accommodate passengers a little better,” Lockwood said. “We will probably do it around the same time frame next year, about the third week of December.”

More train rides in Huntington

The next Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society train excursion is planned for March to Washington, D.C. Although the March 18-21 trip is sold out, president Chris Lockwood said they are trying to get a second trip lined up.

Big Apple Express: This five-day, four-night train trip to New York City runs June 13-17 from Huntington or Charleston. Cost is $1,199 per person for double occupancy and includes round-trip fare, six meals on the train, four nights in downtown NYC, bus tours in the city and more. Call 1-866-639-7487 or go online at www.newrivertrain.com.

Other summer all-inclusive round-trip train trips out of Huntington include the Philadelphia Limited trip to Philly from July 18-22 out of Charleston or Huntington. Another Big Apple Express New York City trip is scheduled for Aug. 12-17 out of Huntington or Charleston.

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