The Polar Express Trains at Whippany

by Bill McKelvey

On Sunday afternoon, December 3, 2017 this editor observed The Polar Express operation at Whippany.  Parking was well laid out and designated, with attendants pointing the way.  About a dozen portable generator supplied tower flood lights provided illumination of the lots and passenger loading areas.  Former gravel walkways had been paved and adequate Porta-Johns were provided.  A large, heated tent was available for passengers to wait comfortably in inclement weather.  It contained ticket windows, decorated Christmas trees, tables and chairs for youngsters to entertain themselves with coloring books.  Holiday music was played both in the tent and throughout the exterior as well.  The fully renovated Morristown & Erie (M&E) Ry Whippany station housed Polar Express merchandise sales.  Coffee, sodas, water and snacks were available at the refreshment stand.

Most families arrive wearing their pajamas for the ride - an annual holiday tradition.  The conductor announced when the train is ready to board with “Well, are you coming?”  He asks all to wave their tickets and gets them excited about departing on a magical Christmas train ride to the North Pole.  The clean, first class, M&E passenger cars had copious evergreen and light decorations along the luggage racks.  In addition, there were undulating green, red, blue and white lights which bathed the interiors in holiday colors.  An excellent surround sound system clearly projects the reading of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express motion picture soundtrack throughout the car.  Conductors, car hosts and characters were all paid professional actors who were outstanding!  They led the singing of Christmas carols; served hot chocolate and cookies; and Santa greeted each child, gaving them their own sleigh bell - just like in the movie.  A wonderfully artistic North Pole with buildings, illuminated Christmas trees and elves juggling holiday presents was slowly passed.  The entire entertaining trip was enjoyed by all passengers.    

The seven car train (one car for crew only) was powered by former Metro North Railroad EMD FL-9 locomotives on either end.  The train first headed West, then returned East through Whippany without stopping and then came back West to stop at Whippany.  Each trip lasts about an hour, with an hour between trains.  This spacing avoids auto gridlock between trains by allowing an hour for departing passengers and arrival of passengers for the next train.  Either two or five Polar Express trains are scheduled on each day.  Between November 18th  and December 31st, 126 trains are operated on 29 days for a total of over 51,000 guests.

This is the second year that The Polar Express event has been has been held a Whippany.  The major difference this year is that the event was directly managed / coordinated by the licensee, Rail Events Incorporated (REI) of Durango, CO, rather than the Morristown & Erie.  The M&E provides the site, infrastructure, train and operating crew.  REI was established in 2000 and is a proud member of the American Heritage Railways Family.  They are in the business of coordinating licensed special events, event promotions, merchandising and related activities to railroad and museum operators throughout the United States (36), Canada (6), and the United Kingdom (3).  The Polar Express train ride is also operated in Phillipsburg, NJ on the Belvidere Delaware Railway.  In addition to The Polar Express, REI, the nation’s premier railroad special events company, currently also holds the following licenses: The Wizard of OZ Train Ride; PEANUTS: The Party Express, The Great Pumpkin Express, The Easter Beagle Express, and The Valentine Express.    

The editor thanks the following Rail Events Inc., staff: Kevin Broomell, Jamie Ryan, Allie Anschutes; Morristown & Erie Ry employees: Chuck Jensen, Gregg Dodd, and Matt Phalon, as well as Chris & Vinnie Mazzei, for their hospitality and cooperation.