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Thursday, May 23, 2024

All Aboard Upstate New York’s Holiday Season Train Obsession

These five Capital Region trains spark festive magic of all kinds, from there-and-back rides with Santa to easy trips home for the holidays.

One of my most memorable Christmas gifts was the American Flyer electric train that I got when I was 10 or 12 years old. It had a modern (by 1960 standards) diesel locomotive with a “real” horn, and all sorts of miniature accoutrements. I played with that set, expanding it and learning skills such as wiring and carpentry, until I left for college.

What is it about toy trains at Christmastime? They’re given as gifts; they’re set up under the Christmas tree; they animate store windows and TV ads. Wide-eyed children relish the mystique of travel to far-off places (maybe even to the North Pole, like in the movies!). For adults, maybe trains simply inspire nostalgia for simpler times.

“Everyone loves a train ride,” says Harry Jameson, chairman and marketing director for the Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR). “The children are amazed by the size of the locomotive and enjoy the ride. Parents grew up with trains and love seeing how much their children enjoy the experience.” 

Whatever the appeal of trains, for Capital District families they’re a way of life during the holidays in ways that not every part of the country gets to experience. From festive rides to holiday travel, all aboard! Upstate New York has an intoxicating train culture that adds a perfect touch of holiday magic to our region during this most wonderful time of the year.

Because of the Capital Region’s proximity to New York City, when the Industrial Revolution reared up, an impressive array of tracks were built to make sure the city folk could get themselves upstate for nature-soaked vacations. Many of those tracks remain but are no longer needed for actual travel, creating an embarrassment of riches when it comes to family-friendly rides using real-life locomotives.

Nearest at hand is the Candy Cane Express, operated by the Saratoga Corinth & Hudson Railway (corinthtrain.com). Promising “a magical journey,” it originates and returns to Corinth, in the foothills of the southeastern Adirondacks a few miles northwest of Saratoga Springs on Route 9N, on what’s left of a branch line that once serviced the bountiful titanium mines above Newcomb. The ride is festive fun, and includes carolers, cookies, hot chocolate and other surprise holiday treats.

“About 8,000 people ride the Candy Cane Express each year,” says SC&H owner and general manager Hal Raven. “It’s a family favorite that makes unforgettable memories.” Nervous parents will feel relaxed upon hearing that they’re in good hands. “Many of our crews work at other railroads,” Raven says. “We also train and certify our own conductors and engineers.” 

A couple of hours south, the Polar Express, operated since 2014 by the CMRR (catskillmountainrailroad.com) out of Kingston, mimics the one in the popular book and animated Tom Hanks movie. Conductors punch your golden ticket; you’re served hot chocolate and a cookie by dancing chefs; passengers read the book as the train rumbles along (but alas, does not execute pirouettes on frozen lakes like the one in the book and movie). At the “North Pole,” Santa and his elves come aboard and give everyone, you guessed it, a silver sleigh bell, just like in the tale.

Jameson, who’s been part of the CMRR for four decades, says that after the train started up again last year following a few dark pandemic years, the Polar Express saw 28,000 passengers. Says Jameson: “We enjoy knowing we’ve made people’s holidays special.”

Other “Santa” trains within striking distance of the Capital District are run by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, based in Utica (adirondackrr.com) and operating as far as Thendara, the stop for Old Forge in the Adirondacks; and the Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad, a function of the Leatherstocking Railway Historical Society (lrhs.com) in Milford, north of I-88 Exit 17. 

If you want to do more than ride a tourist train with the kids from Point A back to Point A—and if you want legitimate “express”— turn to Amtrak (amtrak.com), whose Adirondack line is fully back on track, just in time for the holidays.

There’s a certain romance to traveling by train—and even more so during the holidays when snow-covered vistas whiz by outside the oversized windows, evoking the cinematic glamor of the golden age of travel. A logotype of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, a unit of the federal Department of Transportation, Amtrak was created by Congress in 1971 in a last-ditch—and more or less successful—attempt to salvage what was left of the nation’s downward-spiraling rail passenger operations. Back in the day, Albany was a thriving hub of passenger (and freight) railroading. Dozens of trains a day radiated from its noisy, smoky station in five directions, to destinations like New York City, Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Montreal, Boston, Binghamton and countless cities and towns in between.  

With the exception of Binghamton, you can still get to those spots by locomotive. Numerous well-patronized trains a day run back and forth between Albany (actually, Rensselaer, Albany’s maze of tracks having been replaced—symbolically—by I-787) and New York City, offering rolling panoramas of the Hudson River. West of Albany-Rensselaer, several trains a day run to and from Buffalo, with one continuing to Toronto and another, the overnight Lake Shore Limited, complete with sleeping cars and diners, to Chicago. The eastbound edition of this train splits in two at Albany-Rensselaer, with one section heading to Boston and the other gliding along the Hudson to New York; westbounds from those termini combine at Albany-Rensselaer into one long train.

PHOTO BY MARC GLUCKSMAN

North from Albany-Rensselaer is where things get the most visually compelling. There’s newly-resurrected daily service to and from Montreal via the Adirondack, with stops at communities such as Saratoga Springs, Westport (where skiers can catch a shuttle to Lake Placid) and Plattsburgh, and to Burlington, VT, via Saratoga Springs, Rutland, Middlebury and other iconic, white-steepled Green Mountain State villages on The Ethan Allen Express. The former is considered one of the most scenic train rides in the US, and certainly in the East; it hugs Lake Champlain, sometimes in dramatic, breathtaking fashion and other times swinging inland through river valleys, farms and orchards, with views of the Adirondacks and Green Mountains across the lake. (Be aware that customs delays at the Canadian border can sometimes throw this train off schedule). 

And who needs convincing that Vermont is blessed with calendar-worthy scenery?  It should be noted, though, that in winter the northbound Ethan Allen’s trip north of Albany-Rensselaer is shrouded in darkness.

Whether it’s Santa or Grandma you want to see, you can do it by train this holiday season. All aboard!                

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