On a recent Sunday, I got to ride on Christmas itself. It’s called the Cape May Seashore Lines Santa Express and it’s been rolling the rails in southern New Jersey for 28 years, spreading its Christmas spirit to appreciative riders, young and old alike.
“Welcome aboard; watch your step, please; are you ready to see Santa?” the trainman says, as the steady line of passengers walks past to embark into the railroading past of comfortable cushioned leather, smiling ticket punchers, and a countryside free of noisy bustle and crowded highways.
The day is sunny and the temperature a wintry, pleasant 50 degrees.
A dad who doesn’t give his name says it’s his family’s fourth Santa Express ride and they drive more than two hours each way to get here.
“The kids absolutely love it every time,” he says. “When you put trains, Santa and kids together, it’s perfect.”
The ride is so much pure fun. As I strolled from car to car, I didn’t stop smiling. The adults were all happy and the kids were all well-behaved, likely because Santa Claus was in town.
“I am even well-behaved,” jokes Tony Macrie, the president and general manager of Seashore Lines. “During these unsettled times, the Seashore Lines greatly appreciates the patronage of our riders. It’s the ticket buyers who allow us to operate vintage trains, preserve historic railroad equipment, and live American railroad history.”
Macrie and his crew pay meticulous attention to the details of the train and the pleasure of the riders. The coach cars, café car, and lounge car are refurbished from previous service with legendary passenger lines of the past—ones that previously hosted riders all around southern New Jersey.
The jewel is the Vista Valley. It has a 12-person lounge available for private charters, as are four private family suites. It’s an observation car built by the Pullman Company of Chicago in 1947 and it was part of the famous Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles.
The Super Chief was called Train of the Stars. None other than Frank Sinatra often hosted his friends on the train into the wee hours of the morning. The other first-class cars are the Braddock Inn and New York 38: Each has a rich history of its own.
Hot chocolate, homemade cookies, and other treats are served in the first-class cars and Giovanna Hinrichsen of Estell Manor is thrilled to be in her third year as a server.
“I love it, it’s a great job,” she says. “Seeing the kids so happy gets me into the Christmas spirit.”
In the cab, with earplugs for when he blows that whistle, is the engineer and co-director of special trains operation Alex Chmelowitz, in his second year of driving that train.
“We’re having another big year,” he said. “Very exciting, we love it.”
Chmelowitz is just one person in a large collaborative team at Seashore Lines. There is the conductor and the trainmen, who are experienced and history-minded railroaders. They shepherd the crowds, punch the tickets, and share lore and laughs with the grateful passengers.
“I love the history of trains, especially in South Jersey,” says Lou McCall. “These RDCs (Rail Diesel Cars) are from trains that ran all over the area in the mid-1980s. This was the original Pennsylvania Reading Seashore line from Winslow to Cape May.”
There are also the food and beverage preparers and servers, ticket sellers, ticket takers, and part-time Christmas assistants.
“It took me three days, and I worked on Thanksgiving, but we put up all 5,000 lights on the train,” said assistant Stephen Sardos Rostan. “We had to change 50 bulbs—you know, if one’s out, they’re all out.”
There are entertainers, too, like the Santa helper elves, Victorian caroler, accordionist Jim Broomhead, the St. Nicholas Chorale Carolers, the puppeteer, Mrs. Christmas, and others.
“The mix of different activities and interactions is important,” says conductor Curt Hudson of National Park, NJ, who is also co-director of special train operations. “It helps keep the kids occupied when Santa’s not in the car and adds to the fun. There are families that have ridden for eight or nine years, easily; our train is a family tradition for many.”
Kim Cooper of Mays Landing is one of the elves: “I feel a little nerdy doing this, but my kids love it,” she says. “Their friends say their parents are accountants, mine can say my mom is an elf.”
And…of course… there is Santa Claus, who goes by the name “Santa Art.” Santa talks to every child on the ride, one by one or maybe siblings or cousins together, creating irreplaceable memories of childhood at Christmas.
Hudson, a lifelong railroad enthusiast, says, “We have a very real Santa Claus for the kids.”
There are also real tickets on the Santa Express, none of that bar code on your iPhone nonsense. Here, you pick up or buy your tickets at the window, show them to the ticket taker, then get them punched by the trainmen onboard. To further entertain the kids, trainmen often punch out clever little designs on the tickets.
The Santa Express trip is about 75 minutes. There’s a quick stop at the halfway point, then we’re headed back to where we started: The historic train station abutting a small neighborhood in rural Tuckahoe. Two locomotives, one on each end, accomplish this cool trick. When the train stops, the engineers just walk to what used to be the back and pull away, now in the front for the return trip. In railroad lingo, it’s a “pull-pull.”
As we ride back, the families are enjoying their last cookies and entertainment and the servers are clearing the plates and cups. Because of my coincidental burgundy cap and red sweater, along with my (somewhat) whitish hair, Bonnie Aiello of Hammonton, starts calling me Santa’s brother and her grandchildren laugh.
Hudson says he’s been coming back for 14 years “because it’s so fun. The mix of being part of a railroad operation, including its business aspects, and seeing it all come together for families to enjoy is satisfying.”
Sadly, the festive afternoon cannot last forever. Inevitably, the announcement begins: “Ladies and gentlemen, be sure you stay seated until the train comes to a complete stop. Use care while you exit….”
As passengers disembark and flow back along the tracks toward the large parking lot, they hear from members of the Seashore Lines staff:
“Take care now.”
“Thanks for riding.”
“Merry Christmas to all your family.”
My Christmas will be merrier now, that’s for sure.
* * *
The Seashore Lines Santa Express runs from its two station locations. One is the Richland Village train station on Harding Highway, the other is the Tuckahoe Village train station on Railroad Avenue.
Trains run three times each weekend until Christmas. On Saturdays they run from Tuckahoe, on Sundays from Richland.
The evening trains, the Santa Starlight Express, is the same 75-minute ride. It departs Richland at 5:30 and 7::45 p.m. on Friday, December 8. It departs Tuckahoe at the same times on Friday, December 15, and Friday, December 22.
A Thursday Grown-Up Night train hosts riders over 21 in the dedicated first-class Braddock Inn car.
Tickets for all trains are available online and these reserved tickets are highly recommended. Walk-up tickets may be available at each station.
Seashore Lines runs exciting excursions at other times of the year, such as the Valentine’s Express in February, the Easter Bunny Express in late March, several pizza and ice cream runs, a Wizard train for Halloween, and a November train free for veterans.
Charters for birthday parties and other gatherings are available.