Take a jolly ride with Santa on New Hope Valley train, other tracks

CorrespondentDecember 5, 2013 

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Families wait to board the Santa Train at the Museum of Life & Science in Durham. The miniature train is decked out for the seasonal ride annually.

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  • Local holiday trains New Hope Valley Santa Train

    When: Dec. 7-8 and 14-15

    Where: New Hope Valley Railway, 3900 Bonsal Road, New Hill

    Cost: $10 adults; $7 children

    Info: triangletrain.com

    Santa Train Fundraiser 2013

    When: Dec. 4–8, 11–15 and 18–22

    Where: Museum of Life + Science, 433 Murray Avenue, Durham

    Cost: $15 (Wednesday, Thursday); $20 (Friday, Saturday, Sunday); children 2 and under ride free in adult lap

    Info: lifeandscience.org

    Pullen Park Holiday Wonderland

    All train rides are sold out.

Chris Tilley is getting ready for his second year as Santa Claus. He’ll dress up in the usual – the white beard, the red suit – but he won’t be sitting in some food court.

No, this Santa will ride the rails.

In the unincorporated community of Bonsal, just southwest of Apex, the New Hope Valley Railway operates annual Santa Rides the first two weekends of December. Starting Saturday, Tilley will go car by car, ho-ho-ho-ing for five trains’ worth of kids.

“I was hoarse by the end of the day,” he said, recalling last December. “It was a lot – and a lot of sitting and squatting and kneeling and standing back up. My legs were pretty worn out by the end of that.”

The children’s reactions ranged from awe to terror, he said, and some of the big kids’ too-cool-for-Santa attitudes could be pretty amusing. Yet many of the families on the train were repeat riders; for them, New Hope Valley’s Santa ride has become a tradition. Even Tilley, who’s worked with the railroad 10 years, caught the seasonal bug.

“I had so much fun I said, ‘Well, heck. I’ll do it again this year,’” he said.

Other holiday trains

Miniature trains at Durham’s Museum of Life and Science and Raleigh’s Pullen Park undergo seasonal transformations too, while several other North Carolina excursion trains – that is, tourist railways – also hold holiday rides. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad transforms into the Polar Express throughout November and December, and the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer, a small town just outside Salisbury, features seasonal events.

New Hope Valley is smaller than many of its excursion train cousins, with three running engines and 4 miles of track. Ultimately, it’s a volunteer-run railroad museum with a tourist train component, volunteer Paul Baschon points out, with proceeds from events throughout the year – including the Santa ride – going to fund upkeep and restoration efforts.

“This is a private, not-for-profit museum that specializes in rehabbing railroad equipment, a lot of which operated in North Carolina or surrounding states,” he said. “Our goal here is to restore railroad history.”

For the love of trains

Members here are fascinated with everything from the lore to the sheer mechanics of railroads. Many of them are model railroaders or career engineers who hate to see old trains go to scrap.

“There was a while back when you saw a caboose or a steam engine in every town square, and they’ve kind of disappeared,” said volunteer Dave Chasco, who spearheads publicity for the railroad. He’d rather these relics find new life at New Hope Valley than decay on some abandoned siding.

This is expensive work. Simply replacing rotting cross ties – the wooden beams under the metal tracks – can cost $27,000 annually, Baschon said. And 17, New Hope Valley’s current operational steam engine, needs to be partially disassembled and inspected in 2017; after all, the railway follows the same federal guidelines as a nearby CSX line. This takes serious money and a lot of work.

“A lot of that stuff is 100 years old and we can’t find parts anymore,” said Tilley. “We have to make them.”

Such hands-on restoration is an important draw for many of these volunteers, including longstanding member Bob Majors. He has helped restore a 1923 Southern Railroad post office and a 1926 Seaboard Air Line caboose to working order.

“It’s one of the few that’s in exactly the same shape it was in when it was running on the Southern Railroad in this area,” Baschon said of the mail car.

Holiday train traditions

If railroad history is a common tradition with these volunteers, this small-scale excursion train appears to have started some traditions of its own. Some families ride with Santa year after year, Baschon said. And Chasco said he’s seen kids ride the train growing up, then return with their own children. They definitely recognize repeat Christmas riders, even among the 1,400-odd people the train hauls in a day.

As they’re talking, a freight train passes on the CSX line, and suddenly the only sounds are the rumble and clack of the cars and an occasional mournful horn blast as Baschon and Chasco go silent to watch it pass. Santa Claus or not, they seem to share in the sense of wonder.

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