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The Santa Train Never Gets Old

The Santa Train made its 69th journey through the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee on Saturday, Nov. 19.
A tradition started by the Clinchfield Railroad – now CSX – and the Kingsport Merchants Association, the Santa Train takes a 110-mile journey with stops at 14 scheduled locations along the route.
Hundreds of people wait at each stop, where Santa and celebrity guests toss gifts from the back of the train.
Volunteers get off the train at each stop with gifts to pass out to the children in the crowd, and even gift wrap for adults. At two of the stops, St. Paul, Va., and Kingsport, crowds were estimated at more than 1,000.
Erwin’s CSX yard plays an important role in making the Santa Train a success each year. The train is cleaned and passenger cars are decorated at the Erwin yard, where it is parked for several days before the trip.
The Erwin yard is the home base for the crew, including this year’s Santa Train engineer, Tuck Bradley, conductor Darrell Yates and brakeman Dave Casteel.
Erwin residents Everett Allen and Noel Muhn travel aboard the train each year and work with all aspects of safety along the route.
Patrick Bridges, Unicoi, and Justin Wilcox, Erwin, were among the Erwin yard workers who worked on the ground at the stops, ensuring everyone who visited the train was safe.
Bridges and Wilcox were each on one of the 10 CSX safety teams, all based in Erwin, that were assigned to various stops along the trip.
Members of these teams travel to their assigned stops by automobile and help with crowd control and safety when the train arrives.
After the train leaves each stop, the CSX ground crew stays at the stop to pick up where Santa left off. They arrive with toys ready to hand out to any children who did not receive one from Santa or the workers on the train.
The country music duo Thompson Square served as this year’s celebrity “elves.”
The pair waved to everyone from their spot on the back of the train, where they stood by Santa Claus tossing gifts into the waiting hands of those who attended.
The presents thrown from the train included all kinds of stuffed animals, basketballs, footballs and other small toys.
Toys weren’t the only gifts tossed from the train. Everyone waited anxiously to get their hands on the candies, chips and cookies that were pitched into the crowd as well.
Children weren’t only waiting for gifts to be thrown from the train; the train also carried gift bags packed for boys and girls, and sorted by age group, with each group in a different colored bag.
The workers on the Santa Train took armloads of bags, found children in the crowd and handed a color-specific bag to them.
Thompson Square joined the ground crew at many locations along the route to help deliver the toys to the children waiting.
Keifer and Shawna Thompson told news media that they have never had an opportunity to be part of anything like this before.
When asked how they got involved with the Santa Train, Keifer said, “They asked us. We didn’t really know what it was. We’d never heard of it, but when they told us what it was, we jumped on it.”
“Just to see the kids’ faces when you’re throwing stuff off the back of the train with Santa, it’s great,” Shawna said. “And it’s our first time on a train.”
The Thompsons also indicated that they would like to ride the Santa Train again in future years.
All of the toys distributed were new, donated to the Santa Train by sponsors. In addition to CSX Railroad, the project is sponsored by the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, Food City and Kids Wish Network.
Kids Wish Network donated $500,000 worth of toys this year and also gave strollers to some of the parents. Anna Lanzatella, executive director of Kids Wish, said she is hoping to be able to increase their donation to $1 million next year.
“We’re thrilled to be part of it,” Lanzatella said. “Our relationship with CSX is wonderful and we see the need for the toys. We’d love to double it next year.”
Ed Moore, corporate trainer for Food City, made his 19th trip on the train this year.
“It never gets old,” Moore said. “Every year is different. Every year is rewarding to see the kids and see the smiles on their faces. For me, this kicks off my Christmas season.”
When the train arrived at the Kingsport station, the gift-giving continued.
Kingsport Chamber members, Thompson Square and many others threw gifts from huge flatbed trucks parked near the Chamber office.
It was a busy weekend for Thompson Square.
They had a concert in Kentucky on Friday night, drove all night to Pikeville, Ky., boarded the Santa Train at 6 a.m. in Shelby, Ky., and had a concert in Chattanooga to drive to Saturday.
Despite that kind of schedule, the duo was still willing to sing for the Kingsport crowd and stay to toss toys to the kids there before starting their drive to Chattanooga.
“We don’t sleep much,” Keifer said.
The 2011 Santa Train has completed its run for this year, but the individuals and organizations who are part of the 2012 Santa Train won’t have much time to rest.
They will begin working on the November 2012 event early in January.