Kansas City Southern Railroad’s Holiday Express train rolled into Pittsburg Saturday in an abundant display of holiday cheer.

Kansas City Southern Railroad’s Holiday Express train rolled into Pittsburg Saturday in an abundant display of holiday cheer.

The train, which is pulled from state to state by another engine, includes “Rudy,” a smiling tank car designed to look like a steam engine; a flat car carrying Santa’s sleigh, reindeer and a miniature village; a gingerbread box car; the elves’ workshop; reindeer’s stable; and a little red caboose. New last year — and a crowd pleaser again this year — is a G-gauge Holiday Express model that runs around the flat car during Holiday Express stops.

Each year, the train stops in different cities and towns between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Last year, the train traveled to 23 cities and towns in seven states, beginning in Shreveport, La., and ending in Kansas City. This year’s journey started in Victoria, Texas, and the train stopped in Pittsburg before heading on to Kansas City and St. Louis. More than 60 cities requested the train this year, but only 27 of them will get stops — cities on KCS rail lines typically get a visit every two to three years, so that stops are shared equally.

Pittsburg, though, gets a visit virtually every year by virtue of location; it is where the rail lines converge to head north.

“We stop in Pittsburg each year because it’s our jumping off point to Kansas City and northern Missouri,” Head elf Willis Kilpatrick said.

Kilpatrick said the train — which has been running in its current form for 11 years — got its start back when it was owned by the Gateway Western Railroad, which ran from Kansas City to St. Louis. Then, it was just an engine with two cabooses. Willis said that when the rail line was purchased by KCS, the CEO asked him to travel with it and see what it was all about.

“It went through northern Missouri, and there’s not a lot of money there,” Kilpatrick said. “So many of the parents that got on the train said ‘Thank you for stopping here. If you didn’t, my children wouldn’t have any Christmas at all.’ I told the CEO and he said he thought it was a good program and that we should do it for our whole rail system.”

As KCS expanded and took over more rail lines in Texas and Louisiana, more cities requested that the train stop. Kilpatrick estimated that some 35,000 people have passed through the train so far this year. Last year 51,000 visitors turned out to see it.

The train is run mostly by volunteers. Of those, 60 percent portray elves, and 60 percent of those elves are volunteers from the Kansas City Southern Historical Society. The 40 percent not portraying elves are employees who volunteer their time, as well as nine paid contract employees who work throughout the year to maintain the train.

The Holiday Express isn’t just a free show for the kids, though. KCS employees donate parts of their paychecks to a holiday fund each year, and the railroad distributes that money in $25 gift cards to Salvation Army outfits in various communities during the holidays. Donations are allotted based on the size of the community, Kilpatrick said. Last year, KCS donated 200 gift cards.

Salvation Army Capt. Gary Gugala didn’t yet know how many cards KCS donated this year, but said that they are important nonetheless.

“We use them to make sure people have mittens, gloves, scarves and coats,” Gugala said after he arrived to serve chocolate. “We’ll use the cards we don’t distribute to purchase extra-large coats. They’re very important for older teens, and are an important part of our distribution next week.”

The train was a popular attraction again this year. Zac Briggs recently moved to Pittsburg from Fort Scott. He heard about the Holiday Express from a relative and brought his daughters, 4-year-old Trista and 2-year-old Ayanna, as well as his mother, Sherry, to see it.

“It was really nice, really cool,” Briggs said. “The girls absolutely loved it.”

Webb City resident Jennifer Degonia drove to Pittsburg with her daughters, 3-year-old Britney and 1-year-old Caitlynn; nephew, 3-year-old Gabe Edwards; and mother Angela Edwards to see the train.

“There were all kinds of knick-knacks for the kids to look at,” Degonia said. “They really liked the trains.”

There was another surprise, too.

“We got Britney to sit in Santa’s lap for the first time and we managed to get a picture,” Edwards said, smiling.