Eyes on the street: Riding the CTA’s Holiday Train and Bus

The Holiday Train at the Wilson platform. Image by a reader.
The Holiday Train at the Wilson platform. Image by a reader.

Earlier today I wrote about how Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) was justified in forcing a West Town pub to take down giant inflatable Christmas decorations because they were blocking drivers’ sight lines and endangering pedestrians.

To reassure Streetsblog Chicago readers that I’m not some kind of militant anti-Christmas activist, here’s our first-ever look at the CTA’s Holiday Train and Holiday Bus program, a beloved Chicago tradition that I have somehow still never experienced firsthand after riding transit here for 30-plus years. By coincidence, this afternoon a reader sent me some footage from riding the Holiday Train on the Red Line route between the Lake and Wilson stations during the PM rush.

The Holiday Train arrives at Lake Station on the Red Line route. Video by a reader.

The Holiday Fleet, sponsored by Allstate, is now in its 31st year of existence, according to the transit agency. The Holiday Train launched in 1992, when a “Season’s Greetings from the CTA” sign was hung on the front of an out-of-service train used to bring groceries to charitable organizations across the city.  The train still serves that purpose today, delivering about 600 baskets containing ingredients for a full holiday meal, including a canned ham, potatoes, mixed vegetables, muffin mix, mac and cheese, fruit cocktail, green beans, corn, and a dessert. CTA employees volunteer time and donate money for this effort.

The interior of the Holiday Train. Photo by a reader.
The interior of the Holiday Train. Photo by a reader.

Nowadays the train features a flatcar with Santa in his sleigh, reindeer, and “decorated holiday trees,” according to the CTA. (Let’s face it, folks, separation of church and state aside, this is a Christmas train.) The rail cars are wrapped in seasonal images and twinkling lights, and there are all kinds of cute details inside, like handrails decorated to look like candy canes.

An elf gives out candy canes on the Holiday Train. Photo by a reader.
An elf gives out candy canes on the Holiday Train. Photo by a reader.

The Holiday Train travels all of the ‘L’ lines between late November and late December as part of regular rail service, so you may find yourself riding one on your regular work commute whether or not that was your intention. There’s no charge other than the normal CTA fare.

The Holiday Train arrives at Wilson Station. Video by a Reader.

The Holiday Bus has been around since 2014. As it rolls down the street it plays holiday music, and Santa can be seen waving and shouting “Ho-ho-ho!” from the bus’ roof hatch. The vehicle is decorated to look like a giant reindeer pulling a sleigh, with similar interior decor as the train. The bus travels various routes during the same timeframe as the train, and you can follow its whereabouts using a special holiday bus tracker (only when the bus is in service.) Again, the only charge is the normal fare.

The CTA Holiday Bus in 2017. Photo: Jeff Zoline
The CTA Holiday Bus in 2017. Photo: Jeff Zoline

See tips on how to get the most out of your Holiday Fleet ride, especially if traveling with small children, on the CTA website.

One final tip: You can tell if an approaching ‘L’ train is a Holiday Train if the Train Tracker or station display for that run features a candy cane icon.

The candy cane icon on this platform screen indicates that the next run is the Holiday Train. Photo by a reader.
The candy cane icon on this platform screen indicates that the next run is the Holiday Train. Photo by a reader.

View the Holiday Train schedule here.

View the Holiday Bus schedule here. 

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