UNITY — More than 100 passengers boarded the Santa Express train Sunday morning to enjoy hot chocolate, sing Christmas carols and, most important, meet Santa Claus.

The two-hour, round-trip excursion, put on by volunteers at the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad, departed from Unity Station at 212 Depot St.

Santa and Mrs. Claus made their way through the two rail cars and gave each child a gift.

Santa and Mrs. Claus give gifts Sunday on the Santa Express train in Unity. Morning Sentinel photo by Molly Shelly

Santa Claus sings “Jingle Bells” on Sunday on the Santa Express train in Unity. Morning Sentinel photo by Molly Shelly

“That’s the best part: It’s about the kids and watching them light up when they see Santa,” volunteer Julie Smith said. “Their eyes get big and it’s just so much fun. And with a full train, it’s over 100 people so we make sure to give Santa time to see and interact with all the kids.”

Passenger’s Emily Frost and her son, Hunter, 3, said they felt the excitement as they sang along to “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” with Santa and Mrs. Claus toward the end of the ride.

“This has been awesome,” Emily Frost said. “He had a blast so we’re definitely going to come back next year.”

The Santa Express started as a way for the railroad to bring in extra revenue after it experienced malfunctions with the locomotives at last year’s Common Ground Fair, according to Joe Kelley, a conductor and station agent.

“The Santa Express train started last year and it kind of started out of a need to generate revenue,” Kelley said. “We had some locomotive failures last year and needed to come up with an idea to get the revenue stream coming in. So this is the second year, and it’s a lot better than last year.”

Kelley said the improvements from last year include more holiday decorations on the train and a new partnership with Bar Harbor Cheesecake Co. for food service at Unity Station.

Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, the Santa Express ran three trips each day of the weekend until Monday, Dec. 23, the day that also marks the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad’s 150th anniversary.

“We began in 1870 and (Monday) is 150th year of the start of the operation,” Kelley said. “We’re the only railroad in Maine still operating under original chartered name.”

The railroad was chartered in 1867. In 2009, it became a branch of the Brooks Preservation Society, a nonprofit group established to protect historic railroads.

The train used for the Santa Express includes two rail carts, one built in 1914 and the other in 1924. The train’s engine was built in 1959 and is the only GP-9 engine running in the state of Maine, according to Logan Wadick, assistant conductor on the Santa Express.

The Santa Express’ final two trips of the year depart from Unity Station at 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday.

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