By Dick Mason La Grande Observer
LA GRANDE, Ore. — A long-standing Christmas tradition is ending in La Grande.
The Santa Train will not roll into La Grande this Christmas season for the first time in about six decades because of a Union Pacific Railroad customer service issue. Children will miss seeing Santa arrive at the La Grande Union Pacific Railroad depot on a train as a result. They also will miss seeing Santa make any appearances at the depot.
“It is disappointing. You know that a lot kids will be let down,” said Melissa Lundell, a Central Elementary School parent.
Monte Gaertner, a Union Pacific conductor from Hermiston, said the Santa Train is essentially being canceled because of a Union Pacific cost saving measure.
Previously Union Pacific Railroad allowed three employees — an engineer, a conductor and an employee dressed as Jolly Old St. Nick — to run the Santa Train for about a mile into La Grande while on duty.
Gaertner said Union Pacific is no longer letting employees run the Santa Train while on the job. He noted that employees do not have the option of volunteering their time to ride on and operate the Santa Train because of federal regulations. Gaertner said federal license restrictions allow only railroad employees who are on duty to operate a train.
Aaron Hunt, a director of corporate relations and media for Union Pacific Railroad, explained why the Santa Train is being discontinued.
“Union Pacific has been a part of the Oregon landscape for more than 100 years. We have invested more than $1 billion in our infrastructure in the state over the last decade and La Grande is an important part of our Oregon network,” Hunt said in an email statement. “Based on the needs of our customers, we have recently seen a seasonal increase in freight movements through Oregon. In light of this seasonal change, we have taken steps to further focus our resources on creating value for our customers through the safe and efficient operation of our railroad and are not participating in the Christmas train event this year.”
Gaertner, who grew up in La Grande and greeted the Santa Train many times as a child, is deeply disappointed by the cancellation.
“I just hate to see it go away. It is very dear to my heart,” said Gaertner, who estimates that the Santa Train has been coming to La Grande for about 65 years.
Gaertner has fond memories of greeting the Santa Train with his father, who worked for Union Pacific for 36 years.
“It was a way for me to relate to my dad,” said Gaertner, who works on the rail line between Hermiston and La Grande.
Santa would arrive on the train with bags of gifts for eagerly awaiting children. A year ago the bags were filled with candy, coloring books, crayons, cocoa, Santa straws and Christmas cups.
Children anticipating receiving these gift bags and meeting Santa at the depot will be let down in a big way, according to Karen Givens, a Central Elementary parent.
“It is kind of a bummer. Kids really look forward to it,” Givens said.
Two years ago, close to 500 children were waiting at the depot when the Santa Train arrived.
Diana Bennett, a first-grade teacher at Central Elementary School, said the train served a valuable educational role.
“I think that because we do not have Amtrak and are not using (passenger) trains (the chance to visit the depot and see Santa) was a new experience for the kids,” Bennett said.
The Santa Train was run by members of Union Pacific Employees Club No. 17. The Santa Train is one of many Union County community service projects the club has been involved in.
“Employee Club No. 17 is a quality club, which does a lot for the community from the heart of the employees,” said Gaertner, who is not a member of the club.
Gaertner believes there is a chance that the Santa Train could be brought back in future years.
“It could happen if enough people voiced their opinion,” Gaertner said.