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This time of year, a train ride from Owosso, Mich., will get you to the North Pole

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Reaching the North Pole is hard, usually. People who live outside Detroit, Mich., for example, are more than 3,000 miles from the pole, and they'd have to travel across rough landscape and ice and water to get there. But in one small Michigan town, the journey just takes a short train ride. Here's Kevin Lavery from our member station WKAR.

KEVIN LAVERY, BYLINE: Owosso, Mich. is a town that was born on the rails, and this is its heartbeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAILROAD CROSSING CHIMING)

LAVERY: Here, the irregular chime of the South Washington Street rail crossing welcomes visitors to the home of the most famous train in Michigan. For almost 25 years, thousands of people have come to the Steam Railroading Institute to board its iron steps for a sentimental journey. If you've never seen the Pere Marquette 1225 steam locomotive, you've probably seen the holiday film it inspired, the 2004 hit "The Polar Express." Institute director Dean Pyers says when the producers came looking for a vintage locomotive as their animation model, they found one that already bore the perfect Christmas number.

DEAN PYERS: This was the 1200 series. Engines are numbered 1201 through 1239. And when this one came off - out of the factory in Lima, Ohio, it was carrying 1225.

LAVERY: Destiny.

PYERS: Yeah, our Christmas miracle.

LAVERY: Normally, Pere Marquette 1225 carries passengers to the North Pole, which is cleverly disguised as a tiny village called Ashley, about 30 miles from Owosso. But this year, 1225 is sidelined for repairs. So the institute is using a diesel train instead. There were a lot of excited young riders, like 7-year-old Collins Moore (ph).

Ever been on a train like this before?

COLLINS MOORE: Kind of.

LAVERY: Kind of?

COLLINS: When I was a baby. Yeah.

LAVERY: What's exciting about this today, Collins?

COLLINS: Because it's a train.

LAVERY: It was Andrew Zimmerman's (ph) first trip too, and he wasn't quite sure what to expect.

ANDREW ZIMMERMAN: Well, we're going to the North Pole. That's all I know.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLING)

LAVERY: Before long, we're underway. The hourlong trip includes hot chocolate on demand and games. When we finally arrive, the North Pole welcomes us with holiday shops, food and music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEIGH RIDE")

JOHNNY MATHIS: (Singing) Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too.

LAVERY: Transforming Ashley, Mich., population 500, into the North Pole is a year-round endeavor. Carol Stewart is in charge here - the head elf, you might say. She loves the looks on the kids' faces as they step off the train.

CAROL STEWART: You know, when they jump in and their eyes are so huge, it makes it worth your while.

LAVERY: Stewart has also seen her share of skeptics, too.

STEWART: All the time. If they're convinced that this is not the North Pole, we say, of course, it's not Christmas yet. You know, you're not going to see Santa till then, but we have Santa helpers.

LAVERY: Any lingering doubt quickly flies when the man himself arrives.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) Santa Claus is coming to town.

LAVERY: Everyone is smiling as we board our diesel train for the trip home. In 2023, the Pere Marquette 1225, Michigan's iconic coal-black sleigh, will be back on track.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLING)

LAVERY: For NPR News, I'm Kevin Lavery in East Lansing, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALAN SILVESTRI'S "SUITE FROM THE POLAR EXPRESS) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Lavery has been news director at WKAR since September 2006.