For 100 little kids at Unity Point School near Carbondale, Ill., Amtrak is looking much like the Grinch that stole Christmas.

The pre-K and elementary school students were looking forward to their first train ride, a little 20-minute trip from Carbondale to Du Quoin, on Dec. 6. The event was called the "Polar Express," after the story the kids all read or had read to them, about a little boy in his jammies who's whisked by train to the North Pole to see Santa.

This would have been the fourth year for the increasingly popular trip, and local Du Quoin officials had arranged to make it memorable, with hot chocolate and such waiting for the kids, many of them from low-income families, followed by a reception with Santa himself and some elves and a tour of the Du Quoin State Fair's holiday lights display.

But then, according to a story broken by the Du Quoin Evening Call, Amtrak told event organizer Melissa Steeb that the trip didn't warrant the extra cars Amtrak would have to carry up to Chicago after the kids got off in Du Quoin. This was so even though Amtrak had planned to charge the school $2 per child and $4 per adult.

"We would have loved to do it," an Amtrak spokesman said yesterday, but right now "we're laying off hundreds of people trying to keep the company afloat," and the event would have cost many thousands of dollars. "We're not trying to play the Grinch," he said.

Well, so much for encouraging new riders. Maybe next year.

No Seven-Year Itch

When last we checked with the Cuban puppy patrol, the commies were kicking Ambassador Vickie Huddleston's beautiful Afghan hound, Havana, out of the local kennel club.

But there's another pooch who for seven years has been given asylum, food and board by diplomats at the U.S. Interests Section. The dog, who looks to be a purebred mutt, arrived emaciated when he fled Fidel Castro's communist regime and sought refuge among the capitalists.

Since then, the staff, which named him "Libertad," has been giving him three squares and we hear that, even on weekends, when no one is around to feed him, he resolutely refuses to cross back to hostile territory. This is taken as a sign of courage and fidelity by some, but others say it may be he doesn't have the cash to get the really good chow at the dollar-only stores.

Doubtless they'll have to hide him if Janet Reno visits.

Senate Programs the XXX Files

The Senate recording studio, which tapes lawmakers for hometown shows and broadcasts internally to Senate offices things like primers on parliamentary procedure, switched signals recently and showed a porno movie instead.

The Dec. 6 showing apparently didn't draw much of an audience -- the movie rolled at 7 a.m., and the Senate was in recess -- but it caught the attention of Capitol police officers who, we trust, acted immediately to stop it.

A recording studio worker has been placed on administrative leave, according to Roll Call, which first reported the incident, for dubbing the movie at work and inadvertently showing it.

What Lott Didn't Do

We've searched high and low and can find no truth whatsoever to a rumor that embattled Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) is preparing to introduce legislation providing reparations for slavery, though, much like affirmative action, he may have always supported the idea.

Coleman Hires Mason

Sen.-elect Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) has tapped Tom Mason, who had been a top aide to Republican former senators Rudy Boschwitz (Minn.) and James Abdnor (S.D.), to be his chief of staff.

Energy Department deputy chief of staff Joseph P. McMonigle moves up to chief, replacing now-Deputy Secretary Kyle E. McSlarrow.

Jeffrey Forbes, now chief of staff director to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), moves to staff director for the Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee. Zak Andersen, now legislative director for Baucus, moves up to chief of staff.

FBI Auditions Chandler

Some major changes may be in the offing at the FBI's communications shop. Cassandra Chandler, who had been assistant director in charge of training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, has been named acting assistant director for communications at headquarters.

She replaces John Collingwood, longtime communications director, who left in September to work for MBNA, the credit card company, joining his old boss Louis J. Freeh and several other top former G-men.

The move is only for 90 days, but there has been speculation that Chandler may be in line to get the job on a permanent basis. For now, she's to take a look at how to improve the communications operations, which has been much criticized by reporters for being so unresponsive that, even when there's stuff that makes the bureau look good, it isn't easily accessible.

Susan Dryden, late of the Justice Department press office, has also moved over to the bureau. Michael Kortan, who was No. 2 under Collingwood, remains in that slot.