The Christmas period brought passengers and presents for Britain’s Heritage lines.
For almost every heritage railway in the country, December has become an important period. The run-up to Christmas sees the operation of ‘Santa Specials’ in one form or another, while further post-Christmas trains run as ‘Mince Pie Specials’ or a variant thereof.
These operations bring the railways back to life after the end of the normal season and avoid an otherwise barren spell for trains through the winter before things restart around spring time. Most importantly, they bring in significant income during the winter months when money still has to be spent, but normal passenger services are not running to generate cash.
Last year, freezing temperatures and heavy snow in the middle of the Santa season not only stretched heritage lines to the limits but resulted in significant lost income. Many trains were cancelled, and if they did run passengers found it difficult if not impossible to actually reach the railways.
Thank goodness the story was very different this year. The weather was not necessarily universally pleasant, but it was nowhere near as cold and very, very few heritage railways could even report a dusting of festive snow on the adjacent landscape.
A number of heritage railways had already enjoyed a terrific year and their Santa traffic provided rich icing for the cake, sending previous traffic records tumbling.
The South Devon Railway achieved its third successive record season in 2011 and carried over 112,000 passengers in a year for the first time. This total, in the SDR’s 20th anniversary year as an independent line, bettered the previous record years of 2007, 2009 and 2010.
The final 2011 figures were 102,021 adults and children, plus another 10,379 children aged under five, bringing the total carried to 112,400. This beat 2010 by 853 (0.84%) when the figures were 111,989 (101,168 excluding children under five).
The SDR sold 7,150 seats on Santa trains, an occupancy rate of 98.89% and very close to an SDR record with total December traffic (Santa, Carol and Mince Pie trains) amounting to some 10,000 passengers.
The Bodmin & Wenford Railway was another success story from the south west, its December Santa and Mince Pie trains drew over 5,300 passengers, 7.9% greater than in December 2010. As 2011 closed, the B&WR had carried 55,789 passengers during the year, its best ever result for a calendar year (up 6.6% on 2010 – its previous best) also making 2011 the line’s third successive record-breaking year for passengers and turnover. In addition to Santa trains, Bodmin held a very successful December 30-31 Winter Steam-Up, which itself attracted almost 45% more passengers than last year’s event.
The North Norfolk Railway carried more than 150,000 people in a single year for the first time. The 2011 total was 150,497, up almost 5% on 2010. This follows a 13% increase in 2010 over the previous year. The NNR carried 10,300 Santa passengers with Christmas revenue up 20% over 2010.
The Isle of Wight Steam Railway was another line which set a new record in 2011 having carried 115,539 passengers, up 5% on 2010 which was the previous record year, itself 13% up on 2009. IOWSR Santa operations resulted in carrying 4,900 Santa passengers compared with a shade over 4,000 in 2010, an increase of 22% with revenue up 14%. Post-Christmas Mince Pie and New Year trains were down 4%, although this only represents a very small reduction in the number of passengers.
The Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway’s 2011 Santa Specials were the line’s best ever with over 2,400 passengers carried over the three weekends of December operations, some 500 up on 2010. This line in the South Wales valleys was one of very few in Britain which could report snowy surroundings, albeit only during the final (December 17-18) weekend – and not sufficient to prevent people from reaching the railway. For the P&BR, 2011 was its second best ever year with a passenger total of 12,100 – just 2% less than the record set in 2010, but that was a quite exceptional year in several ways, not least being the opening of its extension to Blaenavon High Level.
Other lines may not have set new records for annual traffic, but the story around the country was one of excellent, and in some cases, exceptional results. This is very good news, for in times of economic uncertainty when many railways were unsure what to expect, it is evident that people are not stinting on the Christmas experience at a steam railway. Just take a look at this sample of reports from around Britain.
The Santa season was excellent at Chinnor and the success continued with the Mince Pie Specials after Christmas with trains heaving and the Chinnor car park full!
The Severn Valley Railway’s December traffic was well up on last year with every Santa train sold out, accounting for 30,400 passengers. To this can be added passengers travelling on dining trains, school parties and Carol trains. Another 5,000-6,000 passengers travelled on post-Christmas services. The SVR has not had an easy year and total 2011 figures (probably approaching 215,000) will be down on 2010, but this was anticipated and the 2011 figure will be greater than the numbers anticipated when its budget was drawn up.
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway carried nearly 11,000 adults and children on its Santa trains plus around 2,500 passengers on post-Christmas operations, which are a limited ordinary service rather than ‘Mince Pie’ operations.
West Somerset Railway Santa numbers were 7,099 (99.8% of available capacity) – up on the 6,820 carried in 2010 (when more trains ran). The WSR’s post-Christmas offering was the December 28-29 Winter Steam Festival featuring four locomotives in action which drew 1,847 passengers, 28% up on last year’s event with revenue up 40%. Overall WSR traffic for 2011 was down 2.7%, the final figure standing at 208,326 passengers compared with 214,053 in 2010.
The Mid-Hants Railway enjoyed an excellent Christmas period with pre-Christmas passenger numbers up 8-9% and revenue up 20% (due to a price increase) supported by post-Christmas trains also up compared with last year. MHR traffic for 2011 was down about 4% overall, a decrease directly related to a drop in ‘Thomas’ event attendances.
The Kent & East Sussex Railway carried over 12,300 Santa passengers, the highest number since 1989. Moreover, this figure does not include ‘ordinary’ traffic carried earlier in December. This topped off an excellent 2011 for the K&ESR when overall traffic exceeded 100,000 – 7.1% up on 2010 and the best figure since 2000, the year the K&ESR opened to Bodiam and carried 112,000 passengers.
The Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway offered two Santa operations while its line continues to be severed at Winchcombe. A steam service worked between Winchcombe and Cheltenham, while a DMU worked from Toddington over the northern extension to Laverton. Steam was the most popular option, with the total operation being rated a success – a huge contrast with last year when the G-WR abandoned Santa services completely amid heavy snow and lost over £50,000 of anticipated income.
Bluebell Railway Santa revenue was about the same as last year after the line decided to change the format of its Christmas operations. Instead of running through to Kingscote, for 2011 trains worked only from Sheffield Park to Horsted Keynes where a ‘winter fair’ was set up on the platforms. A lower fare was charged for the shorter trip while visitor numbers were up.
Santa numbers were slightly down compared to 2010 although financially the results were about the same as last year due to a reduction in operating costs. The DFR had anticipated lower numbers and consequently reduced its pre-Christmas operations by one day to five days of running thus cutting its overheads. A further four days of post-Christmas ‘Mince Pie’ trains loaded well. Overall DFR traffic for 2011 was about 5% down on 2010 – as experienced by the Mid-Hants Railway, the fall reflected a drop in ‘Thomas’ event numbers.
The Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway carried 10,977 passengers compared with 9,985 in 2010, an increase of 9%. The Scottish line’s post-Christmas trains, called Black Bun specials, brought another 639 passengers compared with 417 a year ago - 35% up. Overall B&KR traffic for 2011 was 51,819, down 2.5% on 2010’s 53,160.
Santa traffic was significantly up with 1,726 tickets sold (£23,320 income) compared with 1,347 (£17,453) in 2010. Overall ticket revenue last year was also up, although shop income was down, resulting in a total revenue increase of 8.49%.
Santa Special ticket sales were up 0.11% compared with 2010, but the LR ran three less trains which cut costs by about £4,500. Although shop sales were down, Mince Pie specials were slightly up. The Christmas period resulted in an overall increase of 3% in revenue terms, so the line felt things had held up quite well considering the present economic climate.
The Great Central Railway sold every Santa train ticket before the final week of operations. The GCR is believed to be the only heritage railway which runs on Christmas Day – its December 25 catering operation carrying 103 guests.
Didcot Railway Centre offers a combined ‘Thomas’/Santa operation in December and visitor numbers for this were 10% up on 2010. Attendance figures at Didcot for the whole of 2011 were 13% up compared with 2010.
Nene Valley Railway first class Santa train seats sold out, but there was a reduction in numbers for the lower priced standard class; overall Christmas traffic was therefore slightly down compared with 2010.
The Swanage Railway carried 7,904 passengers on its Santa Special and 'Wessex Belle' Christmas lunch trains.
The East Lancashire Railway reports Santa traffic up 15% on 2010 with Mince Pie specials also well loaded.
Good news was reported from Britain’s narrow gauge lines as well. Examples include bumper loadings for preservation pioneer, the 2ft 3in gauge Talyllyn Railway’s Santa Specials, plus good loadings for post-Christmas operations.
In Bedfordshire, leading English 2ft gauge line the Leighton Buzzard Railway reports Christmas traffic up 24% up on last year’s snow-affected numbers, with overall LBR traffic for 2011 6% up on 2010. A few miles away, the Great Whipsnade Railway tried running Christmas/New Year trains and found them so successful they will continue in future. Another Christmas ‘first’ was an inaugural ‘Festive Railway Event’ held by the Hampshire Narrow Gauge Railway Trust at Bursledon Brickworks Industrial Museum, where the 2ft gauge line is being progressively extended, on December 4.
Aside from numbers of visiting passengers, several railways celebrated receiving Christmas presents - even if they were more the culmination of a lot of work than ‘gifts’ in the purest sense!
Steam operations returned to the Northamptonshire Ironstone Railway Trust’s line at Hunsbury Hill for the first time in over 12 years at Christmas in the form of newly-overhauled Andrew Barclay & Son 0-4-0ST Sir Thomas Royden (2088/1940).
The Great Central Railway (Nottingham)’s ex-Stewarts and Lloyds Corby steelworks RSH 0-6-0ST No. 63 (7761/54) returned to operation in time to appear on festive trains following fitting of its repaired boiler and will provide resident GCR(N) steam this year after a lengthy period of the line having to hire in steam motive power.
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway’s 4MT 4-6-0 No. 75029 had its first post-overhaul trip on the NYMR main line on December 21. The 4MT is being run-in preparatory to entering full service for the new season, although its return is offset by withdrawal of 4MT 2-6-0 No. 76079 for an overhaul during which its cracked cylinder will be replaced. Mind you, despite its cylinder problem, No. 76079 contributed to the NYMR’s Santa operations, top and tailing trains with a diesel.
And finally, the Colne Valley Railway received a signalbox, the 1880-built GER Type 2 wooden ‘box from Kennett. Talks had been in progress with Network Rail for some time, then the CVR was given four days’ notice that it could have the ‘box, provided it could be collected by December 18. A lorry and crane hire were rapidly arranged and it arrived at the Colne Valley in the afternoon amid the line’s Santa operations!