Published: 18th September 2016
As summer turned too autumn a heat wave swept the country followed by torrential rain. Britain’s heritage railways are completing their peak operating season and in many cases holding Autumn Gala events to round things off before taking a winter breather. Well, no, not really.
There may be a pause in operating in November to allow track gangs access to the permanent way, which in truth is anything but permanent and actually requires constant attention, maintenance and upgrading, but marketing teams are already working hard promoting Santa special trains.
November is also when preserved railways decorate their trains and stations in festive steamy fashion while volunteers and staff’ winterise’ trains and locomotives to prevent ice bursting pipes.
The Santa season, running steam trains in the run-up to Christmas, has become a massively important feature in the operating budgets for almost all heritage railways. More than a few lines generate around a third of their annual revenue from the weeks leading up to Christmas.
It is not hard to see why. Obviously, such events centre on children – with parents and grand-parents eager to not only give the kids a wonderful experience but enjoy the sights and sounds of winter steam and the Christmas spirit rolled into a great package.
Competition for this traffic is hot. In the past it may have been good enough to offer a ride, a Santa Claus and a present. In these chastened economic times heritage railways need to raise their game – and many have risen to and beyond the challenge.
A glimpse of the size of some operations is offered by top UK heritage line, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Santa trains run from Pickering, Grosmont (served by the Esk Valley national network branch) and Whitby stations.
NYMR operations feature meeting Santa in a grotto on the trains (others transport passengers to a station-based grotto) and children are given a fun activity sheet with colouring pencils, a juice drink and an NYMR Santa hat when meeting the man with the white beard – and, naturally, an age appropriate present! A new addition for NYMR this year (other railways have previously offered similar attractions) is a small herd of five real baby reindeer calves at Grosmont. NYMR Santa tickets (£20 each with pre-booking essential) include a mince pie, a hot drink for everyone and an alcoholic tipple for adults.
Pre-booking of tickets is now standard at almost all Britain’s steam lines. Leave it too late and preferred dates can become unavailable or, horror of horrors (for the customer – it is good news for the railway!) Santa trains may be sold out completely. There is at least one, comparatively small, heritage line where ticket sales start immediately following its Santa operations and are fully sold out before the next Santa season even commences.
There will be a heritage railway offering steam-hauled Santa special trains within easy reach of most parts of the country. Many have main line connections, an especially attraction option if intending to partake of alcoholic refreshment as part of the experience.
With Santa in such demand, little wonder North Yorkshire Moors Railway offered him a chance to relax at the seaside town of Whitby (and supplied the accompanying pictures of his brief holiday in Yorkshire) before commencing his arduous tour of worldwide duty from his North Pole base!
The 16 mile Severn Valley Railway running between Bridgnorth at Kidderminster needs over 100 volunteers for every Santa day of operations. This is in addition to the traincrew who are needed to make sure that four separate trains, each carrying a Santa, can run all day carrying thousands of passengers each day.
But the Christmas has already come early for the SVR in the form of Flying Scotsman which has brought sell-out crowds and passengers to the line this month.
Many railways offer steam hauled Christmas dining trains – details will appear here in due course.
Either buy a ticket or go and volunteer!