After all 4,200 tickets for today's Virginia Rail Express's Santa Train sold out in 15 minutes, VRE officials said yesterday that they will plan to add trains next year so that more children can participate.

"It was amazing," said Matt Benka, a VRE spokesman. "You would have thought the Rolling Stones were coming to town, not Santa Claus."

But it is indeed Santa and Mrs. Claus--two pairs, one each for the Manassas and Fredericksburg lines--who will board the trains and pass out candy, coloring books and safety brochures to the children.

This marks the third year for the Santa Train, a cooperative effort among the VRE, the Manassas Police Department and Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization that educates children about railroad safety.

Revenue from the tickets, sold for $1 each, will be donated to Operation Lifesaver, Benka said.

Beverly Humphreys, of the Manassas Police Department, came up with the Santa Train as a way to show children that police officers should be trusted instead of feared. Several officers will be on board the trains.

The cost to operate the trains, to be paid for by Amtrak, CSX and Norfolk-Southern Railway, is about $3,500. VRE will pay for fuel and employee salaries, which add up to about $7,500, Benka said.

"But it's all worth it," he said. "It's a way to give back to the community. The kids just love it."

It's also a way to create interest in the VRE as a commuting option, he said. With ridership running at a record-high 80 percent capacity each day, and plans for adding trains in the future, "we can always ask for more people to try us out," he said.

For others, such as Joe Nelson, the Santa Train is just a warm way to do something kind for others. Nelson, who has played Santa Claus since the program's inception, said he can think of no other job as satisfying. "I feel privileged to do this; it's so awesome," he said.

Nelson, 46, also has played Santa for the Manassas Christmas Parade and for various Kiwanis and Lion's Club events.

Santa Train sponsors also hope to educate children about railroad safety, said Prince William Supervisor Ruth T. Griggs (R-Occoquan), a member of the VRE operational board.

"It's a good program to make sure kids don't the cross tracks without looking," she said. "We have a lot of crossings in Prince William County, and this to make sure kids are sensitive to them and know not to test them."