Johnathan Hettinger —
Friday, December 7, 2018

Winans Elementary second-grader Devan Burford waves and shows his ticket to family standing outside the Christmas Express departing the Livingston Depot on Friday.

Enterprise photos by Nate Howard

Santa Claus gives a bell, along with chocolate and a book, to each of the first- and second-grade students from Winans Elementary School, including second-grader Ryleigh Verrill, while riding the Christmas Express to the west end of the Bozeman Tunnel, Friday.

Conductor Dean Ziegler walks the cars punching tickets of passengers on the train, Friday.

Enterprise photos by Nate Howard

Winans first- and second-grade students show their tickets before departure on the “Christmas Express,” Friday.

Decked out with holiday wreaths, a Montana Rail Link engine and Silver Cloud passenger cars wait for Winans School students to board Friday morning.

Emerging out of the Bozeman Tunnel, the brightness of the snow is almost blinding. The drifts are dotted with evergreen trees.

“Whoa!” the children all say in unison, distracted for a moment from Santa Claus, sitting a few feet in front of them on the Christmas Express. For many of them it was their first ride on a train. They haven’t been this excited since seeing the “Christmas cows” a few miles back.

“I’d like to be out there,” Santa said. “I’m not used to all this warmth at the North Pole.”

The Christmas Express didn’t quite have time to go to the North Pole, so the west end of the Bozeman Tunnel would have to do. Montana Rail Link brought in special Silver Cloud passenger cars from Missoula and decorated them with trees and tinsel. Waiters, elves and other actors were brought over from the Missoula Children’s Theater. Thirty students from Winans School, in reward for good behavior got to ride the train, meet Santa, sing carols and eat some cookies.

“This is the best singing I’ve ever heard,” said Bella Canulli, a second-grader.

Devan Burford, another second-grader, is skeptical that Santa is real, but he liked getting presents, a copy of the “Polar Express” book, which was read on the train and a bell from Santa’s sleigh.

“I still don’t believe, but I like getting presents,” Burford said.

Second-grader Maya Inman informed Santa that she will see the real Santa tonight at the Christmas Stroll. Other children agreed.

The students asked Santa questions about why his beard was short and how he gets into houses that don’t have chimneys. He’s still growing it out, as well as fattening up, ahead of Christmas Eve. He uses magic — powered by belief — to get into houses without chimneys. That’s also how the elves make their toys.

If students from Winans School get their wish, Livingston is going to have a slew of new pets this Christmas: guinea pigs, kitties, dogs, robot dogs, a hedgehog. There will also be new Barbies, Polly Pockets, video games and cheer.

Stacy Posey, Montana Rail Link president, said this is the first time MRL has done the Christmas Express and chose Livingston because its one of their main hubs, with about 80 employees. Posey said he expects the train will be in other communities, switching from place to place each year. The company bought the decorations special for this train.

“I think I’m more excited than the kids,” he said — a refrain shared by everyone from actors to newspaper reporters to chaperones.

MRL also gave out checks, on behalf of the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, to the Livingston Food Resource Center ($20,000) and Park County Rural Fire District No. 1 ($10,000) to assist with their Santa on the Fire Truck program. Those gifts are a part of $75,000 given out in the Livingston community this year, Posey said.