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All Aboard!

It's been one strange year for the travel industry. First, gas prices rose to an all-time high, topping out above $5 a gallon here in California. Then, they were the lowest they have been in years, but thanks in part to a recession (and perhaps a heightened awareness of the environment), people have been driving less, thus keeping the supply-and-demand factor in favor of the consumer. Air travel became increasingly more difficult, what with the ridiculous addition of fees--baggage fees, paying-for-exit-row-seat fees, purchasing-tickets-via-phone fees, sky-high fuel surcharge fees, anything the airlines could come up with really. And long-distance buses...well, who takes those anyhow? They're crowded, slow and unreliable.

So with all the insanity being volleyed back and forth like an incoherent game of ping-pong, it comes as no big surprise that many travelers are switching to the train as their preferred method of travel. Sure, Bay Area residents have always used BART and Caltrain for their daily commute, but Amtrak's national ridership was up 11 percent in 2008, the sixth consecutive year it has seen a rise. Congress and long-time train opposer President Bush signed a bill last month allotting $13 billion in funds to Amtrak over the next five years; President-Elect Obama has already promised to pump even more funds into train travel once he assumes office in January.

And the best thing about trains? You don't have to be 10 years old to love them.

With the holidays just around the corner(!), several boutique California train services offer special themed rides great for the whole family (or the big kid at hear). Check out a couple of our favorites.

Sierra Railroad
Comprising three trains—the Skunk Train, Sacramento River Train and Sierra Railroad Dinner Train—the Sierra Railroad group is spreading cheer from Eastern California to the West with its Christmas Trains services. Both the wildly popular Skunk Train, which leaves from Willits and transverses the majestic redwood forests of rustic Mendocino County, and Sierra Railroad Dinner Train departing from Oakdale have added Christmas cheer to their lineups with Santa fun and games for all. The Skunk Train’s holiday services operate Dec. 13-23, while the Sierra Railroad Dinner Train one runs on Dec. 14-23 (except for Dec. 20). For more information, visit www.sierrarailroad.com.

Fillmore & Western Railway Co.
Those southbound this winter will have ample opportunity to get their holiday groove on with the Fillmore & Western Railway Co. Until Dec. 26, the company will be running the North Pole Express, which features storytellers, elves and a visit from the big jolly man himself (complete with milk and cookies, of course). Kids (and adults if they please) are asked to come in their jammies, teddy bears in tow. Trains depart Wednesday through Sunday at 6 and 7:30pm; reservations are highly recommended. On Saturdays and Sundays at 10am and 2pm, the Christmas Tree Holiday Train transports riders to a Christmas tree farm in search for the perfect pine, and on Friday and Sunday nights at 5:30pm, Christmas lovers of all ages are invited to join Santa for a holiday dinner of festive proportions. Fillmore & Western Railway Co. also puts on an adults-only New Year’s Eve and Day ride, complete with dancing and a champagne toast. All trains depart from the town of Fillmore, about an hour northwest of LA. Log onto www.fwry.com for more details.