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November 4, 2009 > Holiday magic in motion

Holiday magic in motion

By Alyson Whitaker

This time of year, most of us are still trying to get rid of Halloween candy and thoughts of Thanksgiving feasts are just beginning to creep in. But for volunteer members of the Niles Canyon Railway/Pacific Locomotive Association, Christmas has been on their minds since early September.

The Niles Canyon Railway is a living museum of steam engine locomotives, taking visitors back to the 1940's, 50's, and 60's, an era when railroads were converting from steam to diesel-run trains. The Railway is run by the Pacific Locomotive Association (PLA), a group started in 1961 by six college students. Henry Luna, one of the original founders and current president of the association, has a lifelong passion for steam engines and wanted to preserve that history for future generations. At the time of the association's inception, the only two steam trains still operating in the United States were at amusement parks - Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.

Operated completely by volunteers, the not-for-profit association now boasts a membership of nearly 800. A core group of volunteers is made up largely of retirees, often referred to as the 'Home Guard.' Members of all ages are welcome, including families and children. The only prerequisite for membership is a love of trains. For membership information, go to

The fully functional railroad has been rebuilt by the volunteers of the association since arriving at its current location in 1986. The Niles Canyon Railway travels over the original lines of the last leg of the Transcontinental Railroad. The final leg was completed in Niles (now a historic district of Fremont) in September 1869. It was authorized by the 1861 Pacific Railroad Act and signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The railway now has 10 miles of track in service, from Niles eastward past Sunol. Locomotives, steam engines, and a wide array of unique and one-of-a-kind railway cars have been acquired and restored through the years.

While a variety of voyages are offered by the railroad year round, by far the most popular is the Holiday Train of Lights. Beginning in 1990 as a "thank you" for the members and volunteers who work on the railway, the train has become a local attraction drawing crowds from all over the Bay Area. Current General Manager, Dexter Day (aka 'Dr. Christmas') and fellow volunteer Rich Gill, decided to string a few lights onto one of the railcars and invited the members to enjoy a brief magical trip through the Canyon during the holiday season. A quick stop was required at the turnaround to re-secure the duct tape holding the lights in place.

As the lit train traveled through the dark night along Niles Canyon, passing cars couldn't help but marvel at the sight. Inquiries began coming in requesting information about how the public could ride the train. The following year, the San Francisco Chronicle published a brief article on the lit train, inviting the public to ride. On the designated evening, more than 1,200 people arrived at the depot! Shocked volunteers operated the train late into the night to give all who came by the chance to experience the magic.

In the following years, the train has grown significantly, as has its following. In 2008, an additional train was added, one departing from the Sunol station, and one from the Niles station. This nearly doubled the capacity, as well as the revenue for the non-profit organization. The Train of Lights is the largest fundraising event for the PLA. Tickets nearly sold out last year, proof that interest has continued to grow. Many passengers return year after year to experience the magic of a twilight voyage through historic Niles Canyon.

The two trains, departing twice nightly from both Niles and Sunol, are uniquely and completely decorated, inside and out. More than 15,000 lights illuminate each train, powered by on-board generators. No two cars are alike, and even each side of each train is unique. Like ships in the night, the trains travel in a reverse pass, giving passengers aboard either train the opportunity to see both sides of both trains. If you're not careful, and sitting in an open car, you may snag a flying candy cane thrown by a passenger or crewmember from the passing train!

Dexter Day oversees decorating the railcars, a responsibility he doesn't take lightly. 'Dr. Christmas' is out at the rail yard five to six days a week. He works as a conductor for Amtrak, and will often come straight from work to the yard to help the volunteers. The originality in the decoration can't be found in a holiday handbook. Dex prints out color photos of each railway car, and then hand sketches his decorating ideas on the picture. This is the blueprint used by volunteers to bring the trains to their 'holiday' life. Plans sometimes change as volunteers use their artistic license. No two cars are ever alike. Animated decorations and a rainbow of colored lights bring the cars to life. Leslie Smith, a PLA member and volunteer, oversees the decoration of the interiors. She directs the crew hanging lights, swags, wreaths, and boughs, making it impossible to have a 'Bah Humbug' attitude while onboard.

During the train ride, a strolling minstrel leads carols, giving everyone on board a chance to join in song. Santa and Mrs. Claus make an appearance on each train, passing out holiday joy and candy canes. Snacks and hot chocolate are available for purchase, or passengers are welcome to bring their own. Feel the cool winter air as you breeze along in an open-air car, or cozy up inside one of the many enclosed cars.

The Train of Lights operates select Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from the day after Thanksgiving to just after Christmas. If you'd like to experience the magic don't delay. Tickets are selling quickly, and will be gone before Santa begins showing his face at local malls. Tickets can be purchased online at General admission is $25; seating is on a 'first aboard' basis.

Train of Lights
Friday, November 27 through Sunday, December 26.

Niles Depot
37001 Mission Blvd., Fremont
Departure times: 4:15 p.m. and 6:45 p.m.
(Additional parking along Niles Blvd.)

Sunol Depot
6 Kilkare Rd., Sunol
Departure times: 4:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.

Information: (925) 862-9063
To purchase tickets online:

General admission: $25 per person. Seating is based on'first aboard.'

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