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For most of us a train is a nuisance that ties up Main Street while two miles of hoppers or tank cars roll by behind three diesel locomotives. Or it may be one of those fast-moving intermodal double-stack trains with containers of goods from China and elsewhere in Asia, travelling to cities for distribution to stores in time for Christmas sales. But whether the train is carrying sticks (lumber for new homes) or stones (aggregate and sand for new concrete construction), or coal in a unit train to power an electric plant so we can heat and light our homes in the dark of winter, a train often represents holidays. One rarely sees Christmas cards with railroad themes any more—artistic drawings of a village depot and the puffing passenger train delivering visiting relatives and friends or unloading packages from the express car.

Occasionally a railroad will run a “Santa Claus Special” or a “Polar Express” for kids, accompanied by at least one adult. True railroad buffs avoid these, except to take photos, as there are always 2,000 kids and one Porta Potty at the point where the train reverses. Also, it’s generally not a good time to take one’s first Amtrak ride—the coaches will be jammed with travelers, and the crews will be overworked. Now just wait until February or April.

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