Every year about this time family, friends, colleagues and rank strangers ask my advice about holiday-oriented train events in the NY/NJ/PA/CT area. As a life long railroad enthusiast – and the father of one, too – I have pretty good insight into what’s worth your valuable holiday season time. Here’s my 2018 list of suggestions.
To be clear, this is not an exhaustive calendar of events; that’s not my goal. Every place on this list is one that I have visited in the holiday season and/or where I personally know the people in charge. I can vouch for each of these. Consider this a pretty well vetted guide. If you happen to represent an event that is not included, please reach out to me and we can discuss.
Since most of the folks I am writing this for live or work in the NY metropolitan area, I have arranged the events by their distance from Central Park. There is no favoritism in the order.
Note: I have not listed the excellent Holiday Train Show at the NY Botanical Garden display as it is so well known. It is, nonetheless, more than worth a visit: https://www.nybg.org/event/holiday-train-show/
Steam Train in Western New Jersey
North Pole Express
Black River & Western Railroad in Flemington, NJ
61 miles from Central Park
The BR&W has been hauling visitors for over 60 years and is the closest place to NYC to ride behind a real steam locomotive.
The line connects the shopping paradise of Flemington with the quant town of Ringoes, where vintage trains are on display.
I haven’t ridden the steam train here in quite awhile, but I do know some folks involved and they are dedicated to putting on quality events.
The giant model train display Northlandz is near by. The steam train at New Hope, PA is close, too. You could ride them both in the same day. New Hope info is covered later in this guide.
BR&W North Pole tickets: https://www.blackriverrailroad.com/schedule
Great option for the first train ride for young ones
The Christmas Express with Santa Claus
Pine Creek Railroad in Wall, NJ
62 miles from Central Park
The Pine Creek is one of the first tourist railroads in the country, dating back to the 1950’s. Today, it is a modest operation on a loop of track in Allaire State Park. The trains are diesel powered narrow gauge, which means they are somewhat smaller than what you are used to. They aren’t toys, just trains sized for different kinds of work. That size factor, combined with the short trip make the Pine Creek perfect for youngsters wanting their first old time train ride.
There is a lot of unused railroad equipment to see by the station. The state park also features an “abandoned village” and other sites.
An average visit should be about 60-90 minutes for the train with a 20 minute ride, and another hour or two for the village if everything is open. Restrooms are on site, but not on the train.
Note: tickets are very hard to get. One reason is high demand, the other is that they only sell them in advance at the park. Do not show up for a ride without tickets; the train will be sold out and your kids will talk to therapists for decades to come about the day they couldn’t ride the train.
Wall, NJ is 62 miles from Central Park, off the Garden State Parkway. You could take NJ Transit to Belmar and then Uber 20 minutes to the park.
Visit this link for prices and times: http://www.njmt.org/specials.htm
Model train display at the Jersey Shore
The Holiday Spectacular and Christmas Train Show
InfoAge Science Center in Wall, NJ
62 miles from Central Park
Full transparency: I am a trustee of the Garden State Central Model Railroad Club which puts on this event.
Located at the historic Camp Evans (a former Marconi wireless facility that later became an Army base where radar and satellite technology was perfected), this is a unique three-room model train show.
The festive main room features model train layouts from tiny Z-gauge up to G-gauge garden-size trains. Some even run on real steam!
The unique hands-on room features many Geo-Trax and Lionel layouts for visitors to operate. Tired of your kids only being told “don’t touch?” In this one room, we have built a display dedicated to “please touch.” Some families stay for hours in this room.
The third room features crafts and Santa! Some weekends admission is free if you bring a new unwrapped toy for our partners the Marines and their Toys for Tots program.
The rest of the site features mini-museums on military models, radio history, computer history, military vehicles, shipwrecks and more. They even have the first radar dish to bounce a signal off the moon: Diana
Length of visit is tough to estimate. A quick view of the model trains takes 30-45 minutes. The hands-on room and the other museums could fill a whole day. Snacks and restrooms on site.
The display is near the Garden State Parkway and Route 18. It is a 10 minute Uber ride from the NJ Transit Belmar train station. It also about 15 minutes from the Pine Creek Railroad mentioned above.
For details on the train show go to: https://www.facebook.com/NewJerseyHolidayTrainShow/
To learn more about the InfoAge Science Center go to: https://infoage.org/
Steam in beautiful New Hope, PA
Santa’s Steam Spectacular
New Hope & Ivyland Railroad, New Hope, PA
72 miles from Central Park
The New Hope & Ivyland is a long-running line which begins in the heart of the arty tourist village of New Hope along the Delaware River. The ride is through the countryside of Bucks County, PA.
The New Hope trains are among the most expensive on our list. They have some diesel-powered holiday trains but the magic is the steam train. Our experience was worth the cost, as the steam locomotive adds to the old time experience. Santa and singing can’t be beat.
New Hope (and adjacent Lambertville, NJ) are popular towns year-round. You could easily spend the whole day. An abundance of shops and restaurants await. Parking can be tight, but the best parking in town is conveniently by the train station.
For more details visit: https://www.newhoperailroad.com/santas-steam-spectacular
The Polar Express in New Jersey
The Polar Express
Delaware River Railway in Phillipsburg, NJ
73 miles from Central Park
This is going to be a short review because I have not ridden The Polar Express but my family has enjoyed the railroad in other seasons. They go out of their way to entertain. They do have a steam locomotive, but holiday trips are usually diesel powered.
Holiday magic in western Connecticut
Northern Lights Limited and Santa Express
The Railroad Museum of New England, Thomaston, CT
95 miles from Central Park
Known as RMNE, this group owns a wide variety of trains which operate on the scenic Naugatuck Railroad, a former branch of the New Haven Railroad. Trains are full size and diesel powered.
The best way to describe the museum and its management is “top notch.” Everything they do, they do well. The trains are nicely restored, painted and clean. Events are well planned.
And, yes, riding in the first class car is worth the extra fare.
If you are looking for a family train ride close to NY, this is a great choice. Restrooms available at the station, none on train. Thomaston is near Waterbury and is an easy drive from the metropolitan area.
The holiday trains sell out quickly. Visit their website for details: http://www.rmne.org/northern-lights-limited-santa-express/
Night time steam train
North Pole Express
Essex Steam Train in Essex, CT
103 miles from Central Park
The Essex train is a classic steam powered ride along the Connecticut River. In warmer months, it connects with a boat ride. The whole operation is extremely well run and enjoyable.
They run day and evening holiday trains which tend to sell out very quickly. Restrooms, gifts and snacks are available at the depot.
Essex is right of I95 east of New Haven. On your way up you may want to stop by the very cool Shoreline trolley museum where they will be running Santa’s Trolley Winter Wonderland.
Get tickets steam train at: http://essexsteamtrain.com/seasonal-excursions/north-pole-express/
Trolley info at: http://shorelinetrolley.org/events/2018-12/
Variety of trains west of Allentown, PA
Allentown & Auburn Railroad in Kutztown, PA
Wanamaker, Kempton & Southern in Kempton, PA
115 miles from Central Park
The A&A is a new entry in the tourist railroad museum. The 4 mile ride through the farmland around Kutztown, PA is a quaint, laid back experience. The railroad features the oldest operating diesel engine in the US, plus a unique self-powered car called the “Doodlebug.”
The A&A’s owners are dedicated to growing their business and early results are very promising. Holiday trips also feature an evening “hot chocolate” train. In past years they had a Christmas tree train, where you rode the train, picked your tree, loaded it on the train and took it back to your car. Neat!
The WK&S runs a short but scenic route through the hills by Hawk Mountain near Kempton, PA. Also diesel powered, this is a classic family-friendly railroad. They will be running Santa trains and Mrs. Claus’ Story Trains.
I know the teams at both of these lines, and I recommend you try doing them on the same day if schedules allow. Both have restrooms at their station and easy parking. Class acts, but still nice and homey.
This area just west of Allentown, PA is an easy drive out Interstate 78. Along the way, you might stop at the incredible Christkindlmarkt in Bethlehem. Another treat awaits just west of Kutztown: Roadside America the most wondrous Lionel display of all time. It’s always just about 1955 or so there. It’s a treasure. And it is for sale. Who knows if its days are numbered?
Allentown & Auburn: http://allentownandauburnrr.com/
Roadside America: https://www.roadsideamerica.co/
The Switzerland of America
Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway in Jim Thorpe, PA
Jim Thorpe is my favorite town anywhere. Jammed into a narrow valley, the area used to be called the Switzerland of America. There is so much to do in town, but for now let’s just focus on the train.
The Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway has become one of the busiest heritage railroads in the east. With a beautiful route up the Lehigh Gorge, it is not hard to see why.
Trains are usually diesel powered, though their steam locomotive is used on certain dates (not sure if it will be out at the holidays), and the coaches are well restored and comfortable.
The Santa trips take a little over an hour. The town could entertain you for a whole weekend. The last part of the drive is in the mountains. Weather and holiday traffic can cause delays, so my advice is to leave plenty of time for your travel.
There are shops and restaurants throughout the village. Restrooms are at the station and (I think) on board the trains, too.
Details at: http://www.lgsry.com/santaspecials
Scranton is a train lover’s dream
Steamtown Holiday Express
Erie Lackawanna Dining Car Society
Santa on the Trolley – Electric City Trolley Museum
Scranton is a haven for train fans. The giant Steamtown National Historic Site is one of the most impressive railroad museums in the country, with a full roundhouse and working turntable. Steamtown features a beautiful green steam switch engine which runs short trips in the city.
For the holidays, two different excursions are offered.
Steamtown trains run up into the mountains to the quaint station at Moscow where snacks and displays await.
The Erie Lackawanna Dining Car trains run on the same route to the town of Gouldsboro. The train offers a dining car (with meals certain days), a sleeping car (compartments made up for day travel) and coaches. The dining and sleeping cars are worth the extra fare.
Full transparency: I am involved with projects at Steamtown and Moscow, and I have friends in all the groups running with these trips. You can’t go wrong.
On a totally different angle, the best trolley ride in North America is in Scranton, too. The Electric City Trolley Museum ride goes through a mile long tunnel and up into the mountains. There is nothing like it anywhere.
Oh, and the museum has the John Oliver train layout he has built for his show. Pretty cool.
And after, if you love buffalo wings, make sure to visit JoJo’s at The Donkey. It’s a neighborhood bar with the best wings. Seriously. https://www.facebook.com/JoJosAtTheDonkey/
Steamtown ticket info: https://www.nps.gov/stea/upload/Holiday-Express-2018-508.pdf
Erie Lackawanna Dining Car ticket info: http://www.eldcps.org/
Electric City Trolley Museum – call for tickets: http://www.ectma.org/
A Rail Revival in the Endless Mountains
Santa Winterfest Flyer
The Stourbridge Line, Honesdale & Hawley, PA
129 miles from Central Park
The Stourbridge Line is a new player in holiday rail magic. Although tourist trains have run on the line in the past, today there is a new owner and newly restored trains that are truly a joy to ride (especially the President’s car). Honesdale was the site of America’s first steam railroad, so you can’t get much more historic than that!
For the holidays a series of diesel powered trains will run with departures from Honesdale and Hawley depending upon the day. The Santa Express runs frequently during the season while the Santa Winterfest Flyer is scheduled around Hawley’s Winterfest celebration.
I can’t say enough about what new team has done with this line. Care and consideration are evident in every touch. Even if you rode it before under past ownership, it is worth it to go back and see what’s been – and continues to be – done.
The drive to Honesdale includes quite a bit of beautiful local highway miles. It’s an easy drive, but all extra time if the weather is inclement. The town itself is making a tourist-oriented comeback with many shops and restaurants.
Santa Express tickets: https://www.thestourbridgeline.net/page5.html
Santa Winterfest Flyer tickets: https://www.thestourbridgeline.net/page5.html
A Delaware Tradition
Holiday Lights Express
Santa Claus Express
Wilmington & Western Railroad, Wilmington, Delaware
129 miles from Central Park
The W&W has been putting smiles on riders’ faces since 1966 hauling passengers through the historic Red Clay Valley area of northern Delaware on tracks first laid in 1872. With a fleet of vintage steam and diesel locomotives hauling restores period train cars, the W&W is a delightful time machine.
For the holiday season, two special train rides are offered. The steam-powered Santa Claus Express is a 90-minute trip with the chief elf. The Holiday Lights Express is a diesel-hauled nighttime excursion with the train itself decked out in Christmas lights. It is a sight to behold.
Santa Claus Express details: http://www.wwrr.com/ride/events/santa.aspx
Holiday Lights Express details: http://www.wwrr.com/ride/events/holiday-lights.aspx
Amish country attractions
Santa’s Paradise Express
The Night Before Christmas Train
Christmas Tree Train
Strasburg Rail Road
Strasburg is the grandaddy of steam railroads, often running two or three steam locomotives at a time. It is a top destination in lovely Lancaster County, PA.
It is hard to say enough about the Strasburg. They are simply the best in the business. Any special or extra fare trip is worthwhile.
The Santa train is a daytime trip, while the Night Before Christmas train is after dark. Steam trains at night in cold weather are sights to behold. The Christmas tree train takes you down the line to select a tree which will be hauled back on the steam train.
They also offer lunch and dinner trains. Note, they use the old railroad rules of filling up a dining car. If your party doesn’t fill all the seats at a table, you will likely have other riders seated with you. Some folks like that, some folks don’t.
Across the street is the massive Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Down the road is the National Toy Train Museum. Down the road the other way is the Choo Choo Barn model railroad. And right by the railroad is a hotel where you can stay in real cabooses.
It’s railroad overload for the little engineers in your life. I have been going for over 45 years and continue to enjoy it.
Don’t want to drive? Amtrak serves nearby Lancaster direct from Penn Station, NY.
Strasburg Rail Road holiday info: https://www.strasburgrailroad.com/ride/events/
Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania holiday events: https://rrmuseumpa.org/events/
Toy Train Museum: http://www.nttmuseum.org/
Choo Choo Barn: https://www.choochoobarn.com/
Red Caboose Motel: http://www.redcaboosemotel.com/
A wonderful newcomer in PA
Santa Express Trains
Everett Railroad in Holidaysburg, PA
Why am I including a railroad almost 300 miles from New York City? Because it’s pretty awesome and a new operation many folks in our area haven’t heard about yet.
The holiday steam train with vintage cars rolls through very scenic hills south of Altoona, PA. The attraction is the quality of the ride and the family atmosphere created by the staff – who studied the art of tourist railroading before opening the line.
Of all the lines on this list, the Everett provides the most “authentic” country steam train experience. It is wonderful.
The Holidaysburg station has a gift shop and restrooms. If you are out that way, don’t miss it!
Besides, where better to be in the season than a town called Holidaysburg?
Details and tickets at: https://everettrailroad.com/santa-express-trains/