Over summer 2022, it appeared as though the annual CSX Santa Train would once again be relegated to trucks and drive-through gift locations. In fact, the official social media page for the operation all but said so as summer prepared to turn into fall, to the dismay of those living along the route. But in late September the railroad had a sudden change of heart, announcing that the yearly tradition would return to the rails through central Appalachia.
Started in 1943 by the merchant association in Kingsport, Tenn., the Santa Train runs over the storied and scenic former Clinchfield Railroad from Shelby Yard near Pikeville, Ky., to Kingsport. The train continued under Family Lines, Seaboard System, and finally CSX. But due to global pandemic restrictions and supply chain challenges, the train didn’t run in 2020 and 2021. Gifts were instead handed out at specific drive-through locations as a safety measure to avoid the large crowds both on the ground and on the train, as well as to mitigate the need to pull railroad personnel off their daily assignments to oversee the operation. In August 2022, CSX announced that the 80th installment would again see gifts distributed by drive-through, this time because of continued supply chain and added staffing issues. “It is not feasible to run the train this November, as all of CSX’s resources and personnel are needed to keep the nation’s economy moving,” the railroad said at the time.
ABOVE: The 80th installment of the CSX Santa Train approaches its stop in Clinchco, Va., on November 19. After initially saying the Appalachian tradition would be relegated once again to a drive-through event, the railroad reversed course and ran the 110-mile route. Michael T. Burkhart photo
But then on September 27 the company reversed course and said the train would indeed run, setting off a dash to get things ready for Saturday, November 19, less than two months from the announcement. “Feedback and community support, in addition to positive developments regarding staffing, have made it possible for the train to run its traditional route,” CSX said.
Running the train is a huge feat of logistical choreography. CSX and sponsor Food City not only have dozens of employees and volunteers on board (including newly installed CSX President and CEO Joseph Hinrichs and other executives) to hand out and sort gifts, but CSX had dozens more — from railroad police and special agents to engineering — on the ground with local law enforcement, fire officials, and others to ensure the safety of all participants.
“I am just so proud of how we can touch people’s lives in a meaningful way during the holiday season,” Hinrichs told media gathered on the train. “It’s great to be back after a couple of years and you can tell by the crowds we’ve had that people really appreciate it.”