Christmas services are a huge part of the SVRSevern Valley Railway's services, accounting for approximately 35,000 of the 200,000 tickets sold annually. By tradition, the SVRSevern Valley Railway's services close at the end of the services after New Year's Day and therefore includes the immediate post-Christmas trains.Services are a volunteer lead project under a Santa committee, until 2019 headed by Diane Malyon. It is almost a twelve-month project: presents are ordered in March, and bands and choirs by May.
The first visit by Santa was in 1968. Tony Bending recalls it was a staged affair organised by Dillons store in Bridgnorth High Street who wanted a novel way for Santa to arrive. 46443 drew a single coach out to Cleobury Road Bridge before the event and later on, at the appropriate time, rolled it back in. Having arrived at Bridgnorth by train Santa then travelled by horse and cart, before spending the day seeing children in the High Street shop. The exhibition '50 Years of Steam at the Severn Valley Railway' records the event on 24 November 1968, David Williams records 46443 operating on 21 December 1968.
The South Devon Railway relates that Kitson & Co 5474 'Carnarvon' carried Santa in 1969. This was a similar event held on 20 December 1969; a photograph by C.R. Jenkins of Carnarvon shunting at Bridgnorth on that morning appears in David Williams' book Severn Valley Railway Album.
There is no record of either event in SVRSevern Valley Railway News or Severn Valley Railway Memories. As the public did not use the Railway to meet Santa at his grotto at one of the SVRSevern Valley Railway stations, neither event can be considered as a 'Santa service'.
SVRSevern Valley Railway Santa services
On 23 and 24 December 1973 'Santa Claus' specials ran with three coaches between Bridgnorth and Hampton Loade, hauled by 'Austerity' 0-6-0ST WD 193. The weekend marked the SVRSevern Valley Railway's first Santa services.
Although the SVRSevern Valley Railway extended to Bewdley during 1974, there was no run round loop at Arley at the time. Accordingly the 1974 Santa services were again held between Bridgnorth and Hampton Loade. The loop at Arley was commissioned in May 1975 and from that year on it became the norm for Santa services to run between the southern terminus (Bewdley and later Kidderminster) and a grotto at Arley. In 1979 services reverted to the north end of the line due to the winter closure of Victoria Bridge for repairs.
On 20 December 1982 Santa arrived at Bewdley by helicopter, before travelling to his grotto at Arley by train.
On 8 December 1990 the worst snowstorm for a decade affected the weekend's Santa services; only a small proportion of the 9,000 ticket holders were able to attend.
On 10 December 2017 all Santa Special services were cancelled in light of heavy snow overnight and complete loss of power at Arley Station.
Recent operation to 2018
The mainstay operation was the Santa Special operation. This operated half hourly all day, typically weekends from late November/early December until Christmas Eve. This necessitated a five-train operation, all steam hauled, with a sixth locomotive providing train pre-heating and acting as standby. The trains operated between Kidderminster and Santa's Grotto at Arley, with trains picking up and setting down at Bewdley on the return leg only. In addition the Class 108 DMU ran staff trains, and a late afternoon service for late-returning passengers.
Setting up took place at the beginning of October, with clearing away taking place before year end. A typical day's operation needed around 100 volunteers, excluding crew and signalmen. There were 96 Santa turns for the Santa Specials.
On 23 November 2018 the SVRSevern Valley Railway made a 'Black Friday' discount offer of unsold Santa Special tickets.
A secondary operation was ‘Santa Heralds’, with Santa travelling on the train to distribute presents. These are typically steam-operated midweek services.
Carol Trains are an evening DMUDiesel Multiple Unit service, running from Kidderminster to The Engine House. Christmas Carvery DMUDiesel Multiple Unit services also run to The Engine House where a meal is provided. Dining Trains also operate. Schools steam services run in midweek.
Post-Christmas services normally begin on Boxing Day and run daily until at least New Years Day.
Stations and platforms at Kidderminster, Bewdley and Arley are decorated. At both Kidderminster and Arley live seasonal music is provided by local groups. Carriages are not usually decorated, locomotives may carry headboards, wreaths or other decoration.
It was also an important part of activities for other groups. SVR Apprentices dress in animal character costumes to entertain the waiting youngsters at Arley. Several preservation groups roast and sell chestnuts.
In June 2019 the SVRSevern Valley Railway announced a refresh of Santa Specials, no longer featuring a Grotto but instead including:
- Santa Specials from Kidderminster
- Premium Santa Specials from both Kidderminster and Bridgnorth.
These services operated to Highley on a decorated steam train with Santa meeting every family on the train handing out gifts and posing for photographs. Operationally both were top and tailed, the Bridgnorth-originating services with steam and the Kidderminster services steam and diesel.
A 'Steam in Lights' evening illuminated steam service operates from Bridgnorth. This did not feature Santa.
Carol Trains, Christmas Carvery, Dining Trains, Schools steam services and post-Christmas services continued.
The Bridgnorth services were the first in many years, making use of the facilities afforded by the Bridgnorth development project.
The objective was to provide customers with a new experience and reduce the workload for volunteers. The result was a planned reduction in Santa Services numbers of 4,178, but with revenue increased by £121,324.
2020 and COVID-19 pandemic
The pandemic meant pre-booking Christmas events, using compartment stock for all services. The imposition of a second lockdown in November included dates for the early services, which where cancelled. The planned operation involved two sets for the Santa services and one for Steam in Lights. Santa trains were steam-hauled departures from Kidderminster to Arley for a Santa Pantomime and presents distributed on the train to minimise face-to-face contact. For Steam in Lights evening return trips were planned from Bridgnorth to Hampton Loade, with a steam loco on the north end and diesel on the south end.
Reported total passenger numbers for Christmas services are given below. In some cases these are approximations. Where totals only include Santa trains and exclude post-Christmas services, numbers are in italics.
|Year||No of passengers||Location||Reference||Notes|
|1973||Bridgnorth to Hampton Loade.||1 weekend of Santa trains|
|1974||Bridgnorth to Hampton Loade.|
|1975||Bewdley to Arley||2 weekends of Santa trains.|
|1976||Bewdley to Arley||3 weekends of Santa trains.|
|1977||Bewdley to Arley||4 weekends of Santa trains.|
|1978||10,882||Bewdley to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 50||Total for Santa trains only, a 46% increase on 1977.|
|1979||Bridgnorth to Hampton Loade||Repairs to Victoria Bridge.|
|1980||19,515||Bewdley to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 59/63||Santa trains 17,872|
|1981||16,378||Bewdley to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 63||All Santa services ran but numbers were affected by snow.|
|1982||22,005||Bewdley to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 67|
|1983||33,634||Bewdley to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 71||Santa trains 31,450, Mince pie specials 2,184|
|1984||34,628||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 75||Santa trains 33,326, Mince pie specials 1,302|
|1985||30,975||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 79||Santa trains 28,978, Mince pie specials 1,997|
|1986||37,369||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 83||Santa trains 34,753, Mince pie specials 2,616.|
|1987||31,889||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 87||Santa trains 29,634, Mince pie specials 2,255.|
|1988||41,496||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 91||Santa trains 38,039, Mince pie specials 3,457.|
|1989||47,259||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 95||Santa trains 42,602, Mince pie specials 4,657.|
|1990||40,935||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 98||Adverse weather in early December.|
|1991||42,535||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 102|
|1992||48,004||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 106/109||Santa trains 42,660, Mince pie specials 5,344.|
|1993||48,485||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 109||Santa trains 41,501, Mince pie specials 6,984.|
|1994||Kidderminster to Arley||Not reported in SVRSevern Valley Railway News.|
|1995||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 117||Predicted Santa trains 32,000; final number not reported.|
|1996||Kidderminster to Arley||Not reported in SVRSevern Valley Railway News.|
|1997||>33,000||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 125|
|1998||>39,258||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 129||December 38,258, plus >1k on New Years Day|
|1999||37,876||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 132|
|2000||>33,000||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 135||33,000 weekend Santas, other midweek services not reported.|
|2001||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 139||Santa trains not reported; 5,100 after Christmas.|
|2002||Kidderminster to Arley||Not reported in SVRSevern Valley Railway News.|
|2003||Kidderminster to Arley||Not reported in SVRSevern Valley Railway News.|
|2004||~43,500||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 149||Santas 35.5k, Diners 1k, Other 7k (approx)|
|2005||~43,200||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 152||Santas and other 42k, Diners 1.2k (approx)|
|2006||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 156||Not reported (Santas were 5k more than budget)|
|2007||Kidderminster to Bewdley||2007 Storm Damage. Numbers not reported.|
|2008||~29,000||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 164|
|2009||Kidderminster to Arley||Not reported in SVRSevern Valley Railway News.|
|2010||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 172||26,529 advance tickets sold, final number not reported|
|2011||30,369||Kidderminster to Arley||Pete Cherry||Not reported in SVRSevern Valley Railway News. Number of advance tickets sold for Santa Special, Herald and Sleigh services. Final number not reported|
|2012||47,038||Kidderminster to Arley||SVRSevern Valley Railway News 181|
|2013||33,205||Kidderminster to Arley||Pete Cherry||Not reported in SVRSevern Valley Railway News. Number of advance tickets sold for Santa Special, Herald and Sleigh services. Final number not reported|
|2014||32,213||Kidderminster to Arley||Pete Cherry||Not reported in SVRSevern Valley Railway News. Number of advance tickets sold for Santa Special, Herald and Sleigh services. Final number not reported|
|2015||33,319||Kidderminster to Arley|||
|2016||33,364||Kidderminster to Arley|||
|2017||31,962||Kidderminster to Arley||||One day lost due to weather.|
|2018||36,104||Kidderminster to Arley|||
|2019||~32,000||Bridgnorth and Kidderminster to Highley||||A planned reduction in Santa Services numbers of 4,178.|
Hired in locomotives
The SVRSevern Valley Railway normally operates services using a working fleet drawn from its own steam locomotives. On several occasions it has been necessary to hire in locomotives from other railways to alleviate pressure on the fleet over the busy Christmas period.
- SVRSevern Valley Railway News 171, 203
- '50 Years of Steam at the Severn Valley Railway', SVR website (Retrieved 22 May 2020)
- Tony Bending, David Williams by email
- South Devon Railway website
- Williams (1974) p. 23.
- Magner (1997).
- SVRSevern Valley Railway News 29,32
- SVRSevern Valley Railway News 67
- SVRSevern Valley Railway News 98
- SVRSevern Valley Railway(H) annual report and financial statements for the period ended 5 January 2020
- Branch Lines newsletter, September 2020 (Retrieved 29 August 2020)
- Originally reported as 37,316 + 4,021. 1993 comparatives used.
- SVRSevern Valley Railway(H) AGM presentation