NJ Transit employees transform commuter train into a magical Santa Express for kids

Dave Decker had a big problem, very different from the ones he solves at his job, to keep his train running on time.

The veteran engineer faced a larger-than-life head of a fairytale mouse who wouldn’t stay on top of a woman’s costume as she prepared to board Railmen for Children’s annual NJ Transit Santa Express train Friday morning.

Decker became a quick costume tech, found a fix, and the NJ Transit clerk-turned-costumed character for the day moved on.

She joined train attendants, engineers and others who helped transform an ordinary commuter train into a holiday wonderland for over 300 children on Friday mornings. In addition to the train ride, the children got a holiday meal and, most importantly, the opportunity to meet Santa Claus, who had a specially selected gift for them.

The Santa train has been rolling for 40 years, almost as long as NJ Transit has been around. Planning for the next annual ride begins almost immediately after the train ride ends in January and requires a lot of volunteer work, said Decker, president of Railmen for Children.

Santa Claus is waiting for his express train.

Santa Claus is waiting aboard his eponymous train, the Santa Express, for children whom he will meet and give them a present on Friday December 2nd, 2022. A charity group of NJ Transit employees called Railmen for Children has operated the train since 1983 to provide a Christmas and Holidays on Wheels celebration for children.John Jones | For NJ Advance Media

“It takes a lot to make that happen,” Decker said Friday in a chilly Hoboken terminal as costumed characters arrived and the train was loaded. “I consider my life blessed and want to give something back. So do all the volunteers.”

Your task is to switch from the commuter train to the Christmas magic, decorate it with garlands, ornaments and posters, play Christmas music and create the ambiance to bring the Christmas spirit to life. Two of NJ Transit’s “Heritage” locomotives, painted in honor of the Jersey Central – one of the predecessor railroads – and the State Department of Transportation, which operated commuter rail services prior to the founding of the current transit agency, powered the train.

“We have 20 to 30 people on this train today, not counting the mechanical forces that help, management and other people,” Decker said.

Much of the pre-holiday work involves raising funds to run the train and shopping for the individual gifts requested by each child.

All aboard the Santa Express.

Santa and Mrs Claus greet children upon their arrival at the Hoboken Terminal to ride the Santa Express on Friday December 2, 2022. A charity group of NJ Transit employees called Railmen for Children has operated the train since 1983 to provide a Christmas and Holidays on Wheels celebration for children.John Jones | For NJ Advance Media

Costs of approximately $50 to $75 per child are covered by donations, from golf outings to a familiar sight for Hoboken commuters – a coin-operated train system in the waiting room. A significant amount comes from donations from NJ Transit employees, Decker said. Railmen for Children has no paid staff, which means the funds go towards running the Santa Claus train for children.

“Railmen for Children is an organization that provides recreation, entertainment and charity to extraordinary children of all ages,” said Decker. “We run a Santa Express train that’s complete with characters and gifts and food and happiness for these students.”

The organization works with different schools to select children. Each child receives a gift that volunteers bought from a child’s special wish list.

“Every kid gets a present from Santa that they want,” Decker said. “We have over 320 kids, 150 will board in Hoboken, we will stop in Clifton, Paterson, Waldwick and walk to Harrison, New York and come back.”

The Santa train is so popular that retired NJ Transit workers like Joe Phalon return annually as Santa’s helpers and visit old friends.

Phalon, who retired from his job as a conductor at NJ Transit in 1995, could be a ringer for Santa as his white beard is real.

“I had the beard and was drafted to be Santa Claus for five years,” said Phalon, now 95. “It started with a couple of lads who decided to run NJ Transit, a train service for underprivileged kids who didn’t have much to offer at Christmas would have.”

All aboard the Santa Express.

Joe Fallon, a 95-year-old former Santa and NJ Transit conductor, boards a train for the Santa Express, which has been run for 40 years by a charity run by NJ Transit employees called Railmen for Children to help children celebrate the holiday to celebrate.John Jones | For NJ Advance Media

What makes this Christmas party on wheels stand out is that it’s more personal to the kids, Phalon said.

The Santa Claus procession is a tradition in the Phalon family. His son Michael took over as Santa Claus on the train until his death that year. Matt Phalon, the superintendent of the Morristown and Erie Railroad, was there Friday and continued the tradition by helping out.

“It’s all in our free time, on days off,” he said of the preparations. “Railway is one of those professions where this is not possible at work.”

The idea has spread to South Jersey, where NJ Transit and the Ronald McDonald House of Southern New Jersey are operating a “Polar Express” light rail ride on the RiverLine for sick children and their families on Saturday.

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Larry Higgs can be reached at [email protected].

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