This Month’s Featured Article


By Published On: December 1st, 2023

All aboard! It’s that time of year when the Catskill Mountain Railroad Polar Express takes a series of fun and festive journeys to the North Pole from right here in the Hudson Valley. Passengers of all ages are welcome to hop on board for this annual adventure. The holiday event, which will run from November 17 through December 29, departs from Westbrook Lane Station at 55 Kingston Plaza Road in Kingston.

Once passengers are on board, scenes from The Polar Express magically come to fruition. Passengers are immersed in partial recreations inspired directly from the film, which debuted in 2004.

From movie to railroad

The Polar Express, starring Tom Hanks, is a Warner Bros. production based on the children’s fantasty picture book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg in 1985. The award-winning book sparked the creation of the Catskill Mountain Railroad Polar Express.

“A company by the name of Rail Events secured the rights to the Warner Bros. copyright and franchised it to railroads across America,” said Harry Jameson, chairman/marketing director of Catskill Mountain Railroad. Its mission was to recreate some of the iconic scenes from the movie. Thanks to this partnership, a wonderful Christmas story has become a holiday tradition for many.

The Catskill Mountain Railroad began offering this holiday-themed train ride event in 2014. Since then, except for a period during the pandemic, the journey has consistently been a part of Catskill Mountain Railroad’s annual schedule.

Take a ride

Catskill Mountain Railroad’s round-trip Polar Express journey lasts about an hour and 15 minutes. Just like the characters in the book, guests are welcome to don pajamas on the train. Before the Catskill Mountain Railroad Polar Express departs, a conductor personally greets each passenger and punches their “golden tickets.” While on the journey, guests warm up with yummy hot chocolate served by synchronized dancing chefs and waiters.

An engaging live musical performance on board creates a fun atmosphere filled with holiday spirit. A cast of characters leads the crowd in holiday caroling and entertainment. The scenes that unfold on the train are set to the soundtrack from The Polar Express. While on board, guests also tune in as The Polar Express is read aloud to them.

Once the train arrives at The North Pole, passengers are greeted by Santa Claus and his team of elves. Just like in the book, each guest is granted the first gift of Christmas – a shiny silver sleigh bell. Guests can take these keepsakes home to commemorate the experience. They’ll also have a host of wonderful memories made with friends, family, and others who partake on this unforgettable adventure.

The storyline

For those unfamiliar with the storyline, The Polar Express is set partially in Grand Rapids, MI, which was once home to Van Allsburg. The tale was inspired, in part, by his early memories. In the story, a young boy who is skeptical about the existence of Santa Claus is rattled by the booming sound of a passenger train known as the Polar Express. On Christmas Eve, it arrives outside his family’s home. To his astonishment, he finds it waiting for him. After racing downstairs, he meets the train’s conductor. He then reluctantly boards the train, which is bound for the North Pole.

While aboard, he meets a spirited girl and other children. A platoon of dancing waiters serves them hot chocolate. The boy soon notices that the girl’s ticket wasn’t validated, and he tries to return it to her. The wind blows it out into the wilderness, but it finds its way back on the train. 

After the girl discovers that her ticket is missing, the conductor leaves with her. Assuming that she will be thrown off the train, the boy locates the ticket and traverses the rooftops to find her. The train later arrives at the North Pole. The conductor announces that one of the children will be selected to receive the first gift of Christmas from Santa. 

After Santa’s sack is loaded onto the sleigh, a bell from a reindeer’s reins flies loose. The boy initially cannot hear it ring until he finds it within himself to believe. He returns the shiny bell to Santa, who chooses him to receive the first gift of Christmas. Santa agrees to let the boy keep the silver bell. As the children board the train to return home, the boy discovers that he lost the bell through a hole in his pocket. The train brings him back home, and he goes to sleep. 

When he awakens on Christmas morning, he discovers a gift – the lost bell with a note from Santa. He and his sister Sarah joyfully ring the bell, but their parents do not hear its chime because, as adults, they no longer believe in Santa Claus. 

The boy reflects on how people eventually grow deaf to the chime of the bell as their belief fades away over the years. However, even after he grows to adulthood, the bell still rings for the boy, as it does “for all who truly believe.”

Behind the scenes

Just as any other train experiences unforeseen schedule changes and interruptions, Catskill Mountain Railroad Polar Express also had its schedule derailed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, it pivoted and continued to operate throughout that challenging time.

“In 2020 and 2021, we built a fleet of open-air flat cars with canopies and offered a special Christmas train ride that allowed us to stay in business while meeting the pandemic requirements. With that behind us, we brought back the iconic Polar Express in 2022,” said Jameson. Last year, the Ulster County event lured 28,000 customers back to its holiday season.

The experience remains true to the storyline. “As required by Rail Events under the Warner Bros. copyright, the event adheres strictly to the movie script,” said Jameson.

For the train enthusiast

Revelers aboard the Catskill Mountain Railroad Polar Express will enjoy traveling on Catskill Mountain Railroad No. 401, which is fully operational. Since 2008, it has transported people through the historic city of Kingston on seasonal train rides.

Some history: The 401 first arrived at Catskill Mountain Railroad in June 1988. That’s when the locomotive was purchased from the Green Mountain Railroad in Vermont. It was built in March 1950 by American Locomotive Company for the Illinois Terminal Railroad as “756” and was later renumbered “1056.”

It was then sold to Gulf, Mobile, and Ohio Railroad and became “1052” before folding into the Illinois Central Gulf in 1972 under the same number and paint. In July 1976, the train was acquired by Green Mountain Railroad; it entered service a few months later in December. No. 401 hauled freight and passengers in Vermont until it was sold to Catskill Mountain Railroad in 1988.

The train can accommodate up to 350 passengers and has five coaches. In 2007, the decision was made to repaint the locomotive, which still boasted the green paint that was initially applied in Vermont more than 20 years earlier. A version of New York Central’s famous “lightning strikes” was chosen, substituting the Catskill Mountain Railroad’s colors for New York City’s two-tone gray.

The Catskill Mountain Railroad currently owns five P72 coaches, which were all purchased by the Long Island Railroad in 1955 and 1956 from Pullman Company. They were originally equipped with steam heat but later converted to electric.  In 1999, the LIRR retired these cars from service.

The fine print

In order to offer a pleasant, smooth, and efficient on-board experience, seating is assigned prior to event day. During the online ticket purchasing process, there is an opportunity to select seats. During checkout, be sure to review the seating charts carefully as selections cannot be changed. A limited number of emergency restrooms are available on board; however the train is not equipped with wheelchair accessible restrooms.

Catskill Mountain Railroad requests that passengers arrive 45 minutes prior to their departure times and check-in at the “Will Call” ticket office desk, which is in the Westbrook Station Ticket Office. Boarding starts 20 minutes before departure time.

While waiting for the boarding call, guests are encouraged to remain in their cars and tune in to 87.7 FM Polar Radio for announcements. All trains will depart as scheduled; no exceptions can be made.

Eager to accommodate

Limited wheelchair seating is available, and special seating can be reserved for families with members with sensory sensitivities. These seats offer softer audio and lighting levels. Please note that no food or beverages will be sold aboard the train. Since the Catskill Mountain Railroad Polar Express is a family-friendly event, alcohol is not permitted on board. 

Year-round events

The Catskill Mountain Railroad offers other fun programming throughout the year. The schedule includes scenic rides every autumn and an ice cream express train in the summer. 

Those who ride the rails or attend themed events, support the Catskill Mountain Railroad – a for-profit organization dedicated to preserving the railroad corridor for all-season recreational use. Despite its for-profit status, it operates similarly to a non-profit organization in that it reinvests all operating surpluses back into the railroad. •

Off-peak tickets are $44 for adults and $34 for children. During peak time, tickets are $53 for adults and $43 for children. Visit for the complete schedule and details about peak season and off-peak season tickets. Good news for Ulster County residents, they’re entitled to a $9 discount off the regular price of each ticket.

For further information, email or call (845) 332-4854. The Westbrook Lane Station is in Kingston Plaza adjacent to Uptown Kingston’s Stockade District in Kingston. Plenty of free parking is available.