A train chaser’s guide to the 2017 CSX Santa Train

Posted by Ron Flanary
on Friday, November 10, 2017

The 2017 CSX Transportation Santa Train departs the railroad’s yard at Shelby, Ky., (Shelbiana is the community name) at 5:45 a.m. This is located about 6 miles south of Pikeville, where there are plenty of lodging and food service options to be found. Between Shelby and Elkhorn City, photo ops are mostly limited to a few public grade crossings. Even if it’s a clear day, this will be mostly in the dark.

There is a stop scheduled at a grade crossing at Marrowbone, Ky., at 6:20 a.m., however the rear car will stop on the crossing, and there will be a major crowd as the head end approaches the stop. Departure is 6:25 a.m.

Arrival in Elkhorn City is 7:05 a.m. There are several good photo locations below and around the former C&O bridge entering town crossing the Russell Fork of McClure River. At each stop, the whistle will sound a minute before departure, alerting media and others to get back on board. Departure time is 7:25 a.m.

Depart Elkhorn City on Route 80 to Haysi. You can get a shot of the train passing the site of the old Clinchfield wye, engine facility and yard office from the overhead bridge. A familiar photo spot on the Clinchfield is the tunnel-bridge combination at Pool Point. Be advised it can only be reached via a steep and treacherous footpath from Route 80, and then requires trespassing on the bridge itself. Trains Magazine is not recommending this shot for those reasons.

The best thing to do is just drive through the mountains on Route 80 direct to Haysi, Va. The train stops at Tom’s Bottom, Va. (arrival 7:45 a.m. for a 10-minute stop), but it’s several miles off Route 80 (on Route 611) and not worth the effort unless you just want that shot.

At Haysi take Route 83 (straight ahead) from its junction with Route 80, and continue through the business district to a left turn on Route 63. Railroad Street will make a steep turn off to the left, and you’re at trackside. You will see a rail line off to the left at Haysi. That’s the Haysi Railroad, and it’s out of service. If you end up on that line, and the rails are rusty, it’s a good clue you’re in the wrong place!

The main line exits a Russell Tunnel, No. 7, at the junction with the Haysi Railroad, and this is the stop. Light should be good on the nose of the train emerging from the tunnel, but given the number of chasers mixed in with locals there to see Santa, it might be crowded. CSX police will be on hand at all stops, so be extremely cautious and avoid doing something that would land you in trouble (i.e., trespassing on a railroad-owned structure).

Arrival time at Haysi is 8:07 a.m., departure is 8:22 a.m. As with other spots, the wise chasers will depart soon after they get their shots to set up for the next location. As you head to the next stop at Clinchco, a decent shot at the south end of Goff Tunnel, No. 10, can be found about four miles south from Haysi. Turn right across the bridge that crosses the river, then left on Steinman’s Circle. It’s a short walk to the tunnel portal.

Next stop is Clinchco, Va. (arrives at 8:40, departs at 8:55). The train emerges from Sykes Mill tunnel No. 12 that’s within sight of the crossing with Route 63 (to the right, just off Route 83). The rear of the train will stop here. Again, this spot will be crowded and parking will be difficult to find.

Further south in Clinchco, there are several possible shots as the train crosses bridge (First McClure) over the McClure River and Route 83. There are then two tunnels in succession just off Route 83 to the left (Perkins Tunnel, No. 13, and Rinehart Tunnel, No. 14) until the road turns left under the railroad at Riverside Grocery. Be advised that both will be in shadow if the sun is out. From there, drive on to Fremont.

The easy and safe shot at Fremont is from the Route 83 bridge that crosses just north of where the rear of the train will stop. The train arrives at Fremont at 9:08 a.m. and departs at 9:33. Again, the wise shooters will depart a little early.

A good shot at McClure can be had by driving over the old access bridge to what was once McClure Lumber. The south portal of Caney Fork Tunnel, No. 18, will be fully lit if the sun is shining.

The next stop for the train will be Dante, Va., on the south side of Sandy Ridge Tunnel. There are a few limited grade crossing shots as the railroad gains altitude in its continued climb to the tunnel.

It’s possible to get a shot of the train at the south end of the siding at Trammel, Va., just as it enters 7,854-foot foot Sandy Ridge Tunnel, and still have ample to time drive across the mountain to Dante for another classic Clinchfield shot. Turn right onto Route on 626 at the dilapidated company store to reach this spot.

The train arrives Dante at 10:08 and departs at 10:28 a.m., but the rear end with Santa will be spotted near the old passenger station. The head end will be at the Union Baptist Church, which is a truly iconic photo location on the Clinchfield. Make a hard right off Route 83 onto Bunchtown Road (the local fire department is on the left). Finding the church should be easy, but again – limited space to park and narrow streets. It’s not good to be the last one to arrive at many of these spots.

From Dante to St. Paul there are several shot possibilities from the highway at Hamlin, also the north end of the siding at Boody (the community name is Hanging Rock). The road crossing at Morefield Bottom (left turn off Route 63) isn’t bad.

The train arrives at St. Paul at 10:53 a.m. This stop is normally a mad house as everyone wants to see Santa and get some gifts. Turn left off Route 63 to Fourth Avenue to reach the stop (you’ll go under both the former N&W Clinch Valley District, and the former Clinchfield). Parking is at a premium here. After the train stops, the motive power will be around the curve, and can be photographed from the Alternate U.S. Route 58 bridge (turn right toward Norton). However, when the train leaves St. Paul (at 11:13 a.m.), it follows the Clinch River, and stays with it all the way to Speers Ferry.

There is no paralleling highway, so to reach the next stop (Dungannon) turn left onto Alternate U.S. Route 58 (eastward toward Abingdon) and drive 2.5 miles. Turn right at the traffic light at Castlewood onto Route 65 South. In another 10 miles you’ll cross the Clinch River, and then the railroad. This is Dungannon (which is a stop). However, turn right on Route 72 north for 1.5 miles, and you’ll be at Osbourne’s Curve, another memorable photo spot. The train should pass this point at about noon (give or take a few minutes, of course). The property owner of the open hillside and barn on the left (west) side of the railroad is accommodating, so you’ll find several great photo spots, depending on your compositional tastes and desire for elevation. What you will NOT find is a place to park! Don’t park along Route 72 (because it’s dangerous, and your car will be in someone’s shot). Instead, drive further north, or take the secondary (unpaved) road at the old Osbourne’s Store and try to find a spot. Do not block anyone’s access to their home, however. This situation underscores the wisdom of leaving earlier than the train at the stops to allow time to reach your next photo spot with ample time to safely park and set up.

The Santa train arrives at Dungannon at 12:03 and departures 12:23 p.m. This is not a good photo opportunity, so drive on south and find your next spot. A few at-grade spots are available within the next few miles on the railroad, but Route 65 then twists its way to the west and across the ridges. Access to the railroad is quite limited until a stretch of nearly a mile of side-by-side running just north of Fort Blackmore.

Continue straight at Fort Blackmore through the road junction with Route 65 onto Route 72 toward Gate City. About 3,200 ft. from Route 65-72 junction at Ft. Blackmore, the highway bridge crosses the railroad below. The train arrives at 12:48 P.M. and departs at 1:03). Best shot is from the Route 72 bridge as the train eases through the throng of people below.

Turn back to the junction and continue Route 65 toward Clinchport. About 3.4 miles from this junction there’s a nice curve (left hand, with good sun) near the north end of the siding at Starnes, Va. (the community name is Slant). Fun fact: Route 65 from Starnes Bend to Clinchport was graded for the still-borne Charleston, Cincinnati & Chicago Railroad, the “Three Cs.” Tracks were never laid, however.

At the intersection of Route 65 with U.S. Route 23 (four-lanes) turn left (south). The iconic shot at Copper Creek Viaduct will be about a mile and a half south, across the river on the left. can be done in many ways. Tree growth has really hampered the shot from the small wayside park on U.S. Route 23. It’s possible to climb the hill for a better viewpoint, or cross the river on U.S. 23 and turn left onto Route 627, Copper Creek Road, to take you below the actual bridge. A low level shot with a wide angle is a possibility. Climbing to the top involves trespassing on private property, so be advised. An approximate time at Copper Creek is 1:35 to 1:40 p.m., but that’s based on running time and doesn’t account for any delays en route.

Speers Ferry to Kermit is only 1.5 miles by the railroad (through Clinch Mountain Tunnel), but it’s 21 miles by highway through Gate City – the only highway route available. Kermit can be reached by following Yuma Road from Weber City, Va., to the railroad. Arrival at Kermit is 1:48 p.m. and departure is 2:08 p.m.

Next stop is Waycross, a junction with NS in the Frisco, Tenn., community. The stop is literally at the Virginia-Tennessee state line. Access to the train is primarily by foot. The train arrives here at 2:20 p.m. and departs at 2:35.

There’s an excellent shot of the train crossing the South Fork of the Holston River on the outskirts of Kingsport, and the light will be excellent if the sun is shining. Take U.S. Route 23 into Kingsport (it becomes Interstate 26 East), then right onto West Stone Drive (U.S. Route 11E), then left on Netherland Inn Road (2.3 miles), and then left on Big Elm Road. Parking here is difficult to find as the road is narrow. The train would pass this spot about 2:40 to 2:45 p.m., but again, that’s a general estimate based on running time between stops.

Getting into and out of downtown Kingsport for the train’s 3 p.m. arrival is difficult because many local residents will be there to see Santa. Typically, once the train is unloaded it will depart shortly for the south. With the Santa chasers gone, there are many excellent photo opportunities south of Kingsport for as long as daylight holds.

So, please be careful. Be respectful of private property rights, drive carefully (because there will be plenty of overly aggressive drivers along for the chase), and avoid dangerous locations and trespassing on CSX property. Most of the best shots can be made safely and legally. For the more adventurous, some planning in advance with Google Maps or some other source will help find safe public access to other locations not listed here.

Comments
To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy

Search the Community