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Five Midwest Holiday Trains

5 Midwest Holiday Trains

North Pole Express - Polar Express Madison - CTA Holiday Train - SOO 1003 - CP Holiday Train

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Published: December 15, 2016

Check out these locations for some great Midwest Holiday Trains!

For our twelfth and final TrainWeb article of 2016, we have decided to take you on an exciting journey across four states to visit five of our favorite Holiday Trains. Visiting at least two or three of these trains has become an annual tradition for the two of us over the past few years... and if you live or frequently visit the Upper Midwest area... we hope after reading about some of the trains maybe this will become a fun new tradition for you and your family come 2017. Put on your Santa hat and get ready to hit the rails with us!

(Various Locations in IL, IA, MN & WI)

We begin with Canadian Pacific's Holiday Train. Depending on where you live, this might be the most easily accessible train of the five to see, as it travels across the country on different Canadian Pacific routes every year. In 2016, the train began in New York State, went up into Southern Ontario, and passed through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota before heading back up into Southern Alberta. Almost every year it runs through the northern suburbs of Chicago, Milwaukee, the Twin Cities, and along the Mississippi River in Eastern Iowa. Every 20-50 miles it will make an actual stop, where music performers will sing about 30 minutes of songs for the crowd. If you don't want to fight with several thousand people, you can stand at any grade crossing along the way to see the train... and it's quite a site! Canadian Pacific has done their Holiday Train for 18 years now in an effort to collect donations and food for local food pantries along the route. There is no cost to see the train or attend one of the stops/shows, but it's a nice gesture if you bring some food along or make a donation. Earlier this month, on December 3rd and 4th, we "chased" the train between Davenport, Iowa and Dubuque, Iowa

Kandace Tabern poses with the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train on December 3, 2016, north of Davenport, Iowa

A check presentation to a local food bank during the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train Stop in Bellevue, Iowa on December 3, 2016

Performers put on a show for a crowd of thousands of people on December 3, 2016 in Bellevue, Iowa

(St. Paul Union Depot, MN)

A fun tradition began in the Twin Cities back in 2014 with the Friends of the 261's North Pole Express.  The Friends of the 261 has been around since the early 1990's offering various excursions across the Midwest and the United States with their restored Milwaukee Road steam locomotive. The organization got in the holiday spirit three years ago with the creation of the North Pole Express. This is one of the few Holiday Trains anywhere our area that actually uses a real, working steam locomotive... making the whole thing that much more special for kids and passengers of all ages. Rides that take around one hour leave from St. Paul Union Depot and operate for about one mile on station trackage. Kids are taken to the "North Pole" where they can look out their window and see the antics of various elves outside. From there, Santa boards the train and everyone gets to tell him what they want for Christmas. Back at the station, passengers are given cookies and hot chocolate. We volunteered on the Friends of the 261 North Pole Express back in 2015 and had an amazing time. We were planning to head up there on December 10th this year, but a snow storm in Chicago caused our flights to be cancelled. Hope to be back in 2017!

Robert and Kandace Tabern with the North Pole Express train in December 2015; downtown St. Paul, MN is in the background

Santa visits kids on the Friends of the 261 North Pole Express train in December 2015

The Friends of the 261 purchased some old Chicago & NorthWestern/Metra/VRE bi-level commuter coaches for the North Pole Express

(Madison/Middleton, WI)

Another fun Holiday Train tradition began in 2014 about 200 miles to the south of the Twin Cities. Iowa Pacific puts on various North Pole Express events around the country, including in California and Mississippi, but one of the best events in our opinion is the train they operate outside of Madison, Wisconsin... if you want to get exact... we are talking about a little-used freight route between Middleton and Cross Plains, Wisconsin on the far northwest side of the capital city.  The train line is owned by Wisconsin & Southern, but Iowa Pacific has track rights to operate the Polar Express. They have the rights from the company who put out the popular children's book... so you get the full effect with a ride on this train... as some of the characters come to life. Those who ride in Diamond Class even get a collectible mug of hot chocolate to take home with them. We headed out on December 4th of this year to check this train out for ourselves for the first time and it was worth it. The special treat this year for the "railfan" in us was the fact Iowa Pacific pulled some strings to get four Skyline Dome cars off VIA's Canadian on its runs. They ran with a recently purchased ex-Milwaukee Road Super Dome.  Nothing beats a heavy snow storm, two E-Units, and 5 dome cars!  All Aboard!

Robert Tabern braves the cold and snow on December 4, 2016 to get his picture taken with one of Iowa Pacific's E-Units

Another shot of an Iowa Pacific E-Unit on the Middleton Polar Express Train

What a beautiful shot!  5 Dome Cars in the Snow!  The consist included an ex-Milwaukee Super Dome and four Via Skyline Dome Cars off the Canadian

(Hartford, WI)

Let's stay inside the Wisconsin "Cheddar Curtain" for our next stop -- as we swing east to Hartford, Wisconsin. The SOO 1003 might be one of the hardest of all five Holiday Trains to catch, but  it is well worth the trip if the time and schedule allows. The locomotive was built in 1913 by ALCO. It was used by the Soo Line until retirement in 1954, when it went into serviceable storage in Gladstone, Michigan as part of the railroad's strategic reserve. In December 1959, the railroad donated the locomotive to the city of Superior, Wisconsin, where it was put on public display. In the mid-1970's, Superior Shortline Steam Railroad was organized to restore the locomotive to operations. It is currently owned by the Steam Locomotive Heritage Association and is kept in Hartford, Wisconsin. The last time we caught up with the SOO 1003 was in December 2008 when it ran a "Toys for Tots" train through East Central Wisconsin, including stops in Hartford and Plymouth, Wisconsin. It ran out of serviceable hours in 2010 and looked like it was going to go back to becoming a museum piece, but it was restored in 2012 and ran again in 2014.  It made an appearance this year in Hartford, Wisconsin in November. It usually operates on Wisconsin & Southern Railroad trackage.

Crowds gather in Plymouth, Wisconsin in December 2008 to have their photo taken with SOO 1003

Crows gather at a grade crossing in Hartford, Wisconsin to see SOO 1003 in December 2008

Robert Tabern has his photo taken with SOO 1003 at a Toys for Tots Train Event in December 2008

(Chicago, IL)

If you are planning to head to the "Windy City" of Chicago during the holidays, you will want to plan on tracking down the CTA's Holiday Train at some point during your journey. This train operates over the various Chicago Transit Authority lines during late November and early December every year. The CTA will post a schedule a few days in advance and lists what time you will be able to ride the train.  The consist is a regular CTA train, except it is wrapped in Christmas lights. On select Saturday departures, Santa rides a flat car on the train and will take pictures with children during select stops. You are able to ride on this train at no additional cost than your regular CTA fare. The inside of the train is also decorated in Christmas lights. There are even "elves" aboard who pass out candy canes and Christmas music is aired over the overhead speakers of the train. This is a very popular holiday tradition in the Chicagoland area and the train can get quite crowded as we learned when riding on it in December 2015. It's recommended that you get on at one of the end points and do your riding from there. This train can often be delayed, too, because of the large crowds that ride... but it's worth it for some holiday cheer in the city.
Kandace Tabern is all bundled up and ready to ride the CTA Holiday Train in December 2015 in Downtown Chicago

A look at the exterior of the decorated CTA Holiday Train

The heavily decorated interior of the CTA Holiday Train, as seen in December 2015

Whether or not you decided to check out any of these trains, we (Robert & Kandace Tabern) wish you a very Merry Christmas here in 2016... and thank you for reading our articles here on TrainWeb. We are going to be taking a little break from writing articles this winter to head down to the Virgin Islands and warm up... but look forward to bringing you more exciting trip reports come Spring 2017.  Merry Christmas, again, and a very happy New Years'!



Canadian Pacific Holiday Train | Friends of the 261 North Pole Express |  Iowa Pacific Middleton, WI Polar Express Train

SOO 1003 Steam Locomotive | CTA Holiday "El" Train


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