'TIS THE SEASON: SANTA TRAIN DEBUTS

'TIS THE SEASON: SANTA TRAIN DEBUTS

Mrs. Claus probably never gets to take the reins on the sleigh. But when the Santa Claus Special made its annual trip through Appalachia, Nita Lingerfelt was in the driver's seat.

Ms. Lingerfelt is the first woman engineer in the train's 51-year history to drive Santa on his trip through the coal fields of eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee. But she was too busy Saturday watching for kids scouring the tracks for toys and candy to worry about all that."I'm just a person up here running the train," said Ms. Lingerfelt, 38, who usually hauls coal and other freight on this line between Shelbiana, Ky., and Kingsport, Tenn. "I'm just another employee."

But Ms. Lingerfelt is the first to admit that this isn't just another run.

The Santa Special started out as a way for the Clinchfield Railroad and the

Kingsport, Tenn., Area of Chamber of Commerce to give something back to the people of central Appalachia - which is home to some of the nation's richest coal and poorest people.

The event has since come to mark the beginning of the Christmas season in the region.

Debbie Mullins, 40, of Clintwood, has been coming out to see the train for 36 years. This year, she brought her 12-year-old son Brandon.

"I just love to see Santa," said Ms. Mullins, who stood in the frigid weather to greet the train during its three-minute stop at Freemont. "I'm just so thankful that they think enough to run this train every year."

Volunteers for the chamber, the Virginia-based Food City grocery chain and

CSX Transportation Inc., the successor to Clinchfield, took turns tossing some of the 15 tons of donated clothes, books, cookies and other goodies from the rear of the train.

Others formed a type of bucket brigade in the boxcar, passing present- stuffed bins to the back and retrieving the emptied ones with military precision.

"You'll be going through a stretch of mountains where you'd think no one would be, and there will be two kids standing there," said Ken Day, a CSXT account executive.