UPPER TOWNSHIP — As the red, white and blue train pulled up to the Tuckahoe Village depot, Santa shouted a loud “Merry Christmas,” waving to the awaiting passengers of the Cape May Seashore Lines Santa Express.
The Thursday afternoon train ride was filled with young children, and those young at heart, wanting to experience holiday nostalgia on the rails. Passenger cars were decorated with garland and lights, while carols and songs played over the train’s speaker system.
“He just loves trains,” said Jannette Lensch, of Millville. Her 2-year-old son Jordan sat in her lap, while her other son Jayden, 8, sang along to “Jingle Bells.”
As Santa and his helper elf walked down the aisle, faces lit up at the sight of the big man in red. During the train ride, Santa diligently listened to the wish lists of each boy and girl.
“My favorite part was when Santa sat with us,” said Madeline Gentile, 8, of the Minotola section of Buena Borough. Her mother, Vanessa Gentile, said their family has taken a ride on the Santa Express for the last three years, making it a Christmas tradition.
The Santa Express has been an annual event for the historic Cape May Seashore Lines for 22 years.
“It started as a one-car operation,” said operator and conductor Curt Hudson, “and has grown to a larger train and operating on weekends and certain weeknights between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
The train tows a number of retired Budd Rail diesel cars from the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. Weekday rides were added this year to accommodate school trips and younger riders.
“It’s great, the weekend events can get so crowded, so it’s nice that we can do this during the weekday,” said Jennifer Humm, of Camden County.
Traveling 30 miles between Cape May and Atlantic counties, the service offers the experience of riding in the restored transit line cars while enjoying holiday festivities.
“There are different things happening on different train rides. We try to have live entertainment, whether its singers or our accordion player,” Hudson said.
Hudson, who has been a part of the train crew himself, is part of the entertainment too, creating keepsakes out of train tickets.
A few quick clicks of his conductor’s hole punch and the image of an angel, a snowman or a Christmas tree appears.
“As many of us are, we are lifelong train enthusiasts,” Hudson said, “with the railroad operating (the Santa Express) becoming an extension, to be able to operate trains and spread the fun of Christmas and trains.”
Trains also evoke the feeling of holiday leisure and travel, from the large cities to the rural homestead, like the one depicted in a vintage holiday greetings poster from the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Line displayed in the passenger car.
Frank and Betty Louis’ love of history and trains brought them to the Santa Express on Thursday.
“It’s interesting to see how people lived back then,” Frank said.
The couple from Orange, Essex County, were excited to ride in the historic rail line after touring the Victorian homes in Cape May.
“There’s something timeless about trains,” Hudson said.
The Santa Express will continue until Sunday. For more information, visit capemayseashorelines.org.