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Choo Choo–Taking a ride with Santa to the Northern Lights

Watching the animated film Polar Express, in which a boy learns the true meaning of Christmas on a train headed for the North Pole, is a treasured holiday season ritual. In the Litchfield Hills, families can experience similar holiday magic first-hand at the Railroad Museum of New England (RMNE).

Historic Thomaston Station, featured in the Leonardi DiCaprio-Kate Winslet film Revolutionary Road, is home base for the RMNE, which has operated tourist trains since the 1990s. Diesel locomotives pulling vintage coaches take passengers south on the former Naugatuck Railroad to the Waterville section of Waterbury, and then back, rolling through scenic sections of the Naugatuck River Valley and past remnants of the region’s industrial past. The trains pass by Thomaston Station for a dramatic final flourish—a slow glide across the towering Thomaston Dam.

The holidays are high season for the RNME, whose Northern Lights Limited and Santa Express trains are the most popular excursions of the year, drawing families from near and far to ride the rails with Santa.

Santa Express generally departs at noon and 2:15 p.m., while the Northern Lights Limited trains run at 5 and 7:15 p.m., highlighting the magic of holiday lights on Thomaston Station and the trains. Both trips feature visits with Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, and the Elves “as the trains travel through the cold winter wilderness.” Young passengers get a gift from Santa’s toy bag, and families traveling first class in the museum’s seasonally-decorated 1891 Rutland Railroad combine car get longer visits with Santa, hot chocolate served in travel mugs, and an enhanced goodie bag.

“Last year we had 13,000-plus passengers just between Thanksgiving and Christmas on holiday trains. That was a new record,” says Matthew Sniffen of Morris, the RNME’s marketing manager. “We hit 30,000 passengers last year, which was also our best number.” Passengers have visited from every state in the continental U.S., as well as Canada, England, Germany, and other countries.

Of the two holiday trains, the Northern Lights Limited offers an experience with a bit more Polar Express-style magic, as families arriving for the journey in the cold seasonal darkness are greeted with the warmth of white lights festooning Thomaston Station and glowing on the vintage train, from the locomotive to the last car, and inside too. Excitement builds as the train begins heading south for a visit to Santa’s Train Workshop, where Santa boards the train with great fanfare to interact with all the children, who sit on his lap in classic fashion and whisper their wish lists. The elves and Mrs. Claus come along, of course, and lead the caroling.

“We try to run a first-class operation as you would expect of any scenic railroad that’s run as a business,” Sniffen says, noting that revenues from the seasonal trips sustain operations and work to restore the museum’s collection of locomotives and rolling stock, as well as the ongoing restoration of Thomaston Station, which has already been rebuilt essentially from the ground up after a fire in the mid-1990s.

The RMNE, which leases the former Naugatuck Railroad from the state Department of Transportation, is completely staffed by volunteers, numbering 30 to 40 who participate regularly.

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