Pulling out of the station for the seventh year in a row, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) Santa Train was packed, similar to morning rush hour, but this time with excited toddlers waiting to see the big man in the red suit.
VRE executive Pete Sklannik stood on the platform at Burke Centre last Saturday, watching the children drag their parents onto the train. Not only were the children going to be visited by Santa, they would also get train safety lessons as part of VRE's "Operation Lifesaver."
"It's an opportunity to learn. Every year it's grown, this year we sold 6,000 tickets," Sklannik said. "The only complaint we get is the kids don't get enough time with Santa."
On the way in, families stopped by the Toys for Tots box and dropped off toys before jumping on the train. Samantha Masey, 7, and her brother Justin, 6, looked out the window with a spyglass.
"I got it with a bug book at school," Samantha said.
Erin Boyer, 7, of Springfield was waiting for Santa and a candy cane.
"I'm going to ask him for an American Idol doll," she said.
The train went west to Manassas, and Santa toured the front of the train, going on each level of the bi-level cars. At Manassas, the engineer moved to the other end and it went back. At that point, Santa visited the other part of the train. The Robinson Secondary School choir went from car to car, singing carols.
Jimmy Rees was part of the troupe. He liked the car-to-car format.
"It's like caroling, but on a train," he said.
Sherlee Huang is the choral director. The train was part of the choir’s busy holiday schedule.
"We've had about 15 performances in the last two weeks. They give up Friday and Saturday. These kids are dedicated," she said.
Burke resident Nicholas Jacky, 3, recognized Kimberly Delisi, singing with the choir.
"She's my baby-sitter," he said before breaking into a rendition of "Jingle Bells."
Alice Baggett came all the way from Waldorf, Md., with daughter Joyce Embrey and her four grandsons. The train attracted them more then Santa.
"This is the only train I know of that does it. We came last year," she said.
The Santa Train cost each rider $3, according to VRE spokesperson Mark Roeber. Despite the train system’s need for additional funding for more cars, the Santa Train was not making a profit.
"We try to put it at a cost where we just break even," he said.