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Choo Choo! Annual holiday train display chugs back into Union Terminal

Duke Holiday Trains (4).jpg
Tana Weingartner
Train Master Clayton Hillard has been working the Duke Energy Holiday Train display since 2011.

It's been a holiday tradition for generations in Cincinnati — the Duke Energy Holiday Train display opens Friday at the Cincinnati Museum Center. This marks the 76th year for what started as a public relations effort by the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad in 1946.

Clayton Hillard has been a train master since 2011. He grew up visiting the trains when they were in Downtown; became a volunteer when they relocated to the Cincinnati Museum Center; and eventually turned into a paid train master ensuring new generations can delight in the model trains.

"I love trains — I had my first train set when I was four and I've just kept going since then," he says.

He learned how to operate the trains by watching and working with the train masters who came before him. He also has his own model trains at home to keep him busy.

"This layout is unique. There's not more than maybe one or two left in the country. We use an outside third rail for our power, which is different than the Lionel trains of today," he explains. "It's unique in the fact (that) most of our steam engines are scratch built. So if a part breaks, you've got to make (a replacement)."

Not only do the train masters have to make their own parts, they also run the trains manually.

This train set is one of the largest portable models in the world. However, it is now permanently installed at the Museum Center.

Hillard has some tips to make the most of the experience.

"The best thing you can do is, when you come down, just don't go to the gallery. Take your time and look at all the scenery, the people (figurines). There's people that come down and come back to the next year and say, 'Oh, I didn't see that.' There's a lot to see and take in. Enjoy this experience."

holiday trains 2022 final.mp4

Fun facts courtesy of the Cincinnati Museum Center

  • At 36 ½ x 47 ½ feet, the Duke Energy Holiday Trains are one of the largest portable models in the world.
  • The trains are authentic "O" gauge, meaning that a quarter-inch on the model is equivalent to one foot on a real train.
  • The rail cars, tracks and buildings are 1/48 actual size.
  • Though the trains may seem to travel slowly, they are traveling at actual scale speed. If a model train travels the loop in one minute, it is traveling at 60 mph.
  • During the holiday season, the trains will travel more than 100,000 scale miles.
    overhead view of a winter themed train set
    Tana Weingartner
    The display began in 1946 as a public relations effort by the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad. It's one of the largest portable models in the world.

What to know if you go

"Holiday Junction Featuring the Duke Energy Holiday Trains" is open Nov. 11 through Jan. 2, 2023. Santa arrives Friday, Nov. 25.

Museum hours are Thursday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with select extended hours.

Tickets are $10 each for adults and children or $5 with the purchase of any other museum experience. Admission is free for CMC members.

Extended hours will be:

  • Wednesday, Nov. 23, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Thursday, Nov. 24, closed
  • Friday, Nov. 25, open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Saturday, Nov. 26, open 10 a.m. 6 p.m.
  • Tuesday, Dec. 20 to Friday, Dec. 23, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Saturday, Dec. 24, open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Sunday, Dec. 25, closed
  • Monday, Dec. 26 to Monday, Jan. 2, open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.