Santa takes the train

PUBLISHED: 20:42 01 December 2013 | UPDATED: 20:42 01 December 2013




While Essex was a bustling centre during the golden age of steam, in one sense the Epping Ongar Railway (EOR) is all rather new. After the resumption of services to the public on May 25, 2012, the EOR was named Railway of the Year at the National Railway Heritage Awards last December as well as scooping the Volunteers’ Award for the work undertaken to restore the Grade II listed station at Ongar and the HRA award for large groups.

Since reopening in May 2012, the EOR built up a head of steam with a successful summer of events before running a series of Santa Specials over the festive period, with Father Christmas visiting passengers on the train and giving all the children a present, while the adults enjoyed sherry and mince pies. These Santa Specials proved so popular with the public that this Christmas Santa is planning a return to the longest heritage railway in Essex. And you never know who might arrive as a special guest as last Christmas also saw an unexpected visit to the railway by Rod Stewart.

Bob Gillman, a volunteer on the railway, helps crew the steam engines 
as a fireman and also doubles up as a signalman when required. Bob explains: ‘I’ve always been involved with steam engines on heritage railways, so when the EOR was being restored, I took the opportunity to join a railway nearer to home. There is a real thrill in being a fireman on the footplate of a full size steam engine.

‘It’s also something to be proud of. In Victorian times we led the world in railway development and I love to see the faces of adults and children as they enjoy the recreated sight, sound and smell of steam and times gone by. This is especially true at Christmas, with events such as the Santa Specials. With stations and carriages nicely decorated, and tinsel on the front of the engine, these events evoke a feeling of what a traditional Christmas should be like.’

Owen Hayward, another volunteer on the line, is also a big fan of the Santa Specials. Owen says: ‘After a hectic season of passenger services and running many other special events, such as the CAMRA and 1940s weekends, the Santa Specials are a great way to unwind. It’s great to see so many parents and grandparents bring along their little ones to visit. After all, where else locally can you experience both history and Christmas in one place on one day?

‘It’s a pleasure to see small children’s faces light up as they ride through the countryside behind a heritage steam locomotive, with all the smells to accompany this, and then to be visited by Father Christmas on the train, who presents them with a gift of their own. For them then to alight at North Pole Station is an added bonus.

‘Because it’s Christmas, everyone goes around with a smile on their face and the families often stop us volunteers for a natter, be they trying to find out more about the railway or just asking us to back them up as they tell their children they will be getting a gift from Father Christmas in person. In comparison with any other day in the year, the atmosphere is on a completely different level, because everyone is having such a great time. Obviously, there are great benefits to us as a railway too; not least the financial gain which allows us to continue restoring, preserving and operating the Epping Ongar Railway for all to enjoy, and to ensure Santa returns in the future.’

It was not just the children experiencing a memorable ride on the Santa Specials and enjoying the festive atmosphere at Christmas. Mark and Lorraine Wells joined the train so that Mark could celebrate a ‘significant birthday’ and loved being taken on a journey through the Essex countryside. It was also a trip down memory lane for Jeff and Christine Porter, with their grandsons Oscar and Duncan, as Jeff remembered back to 1987 when he drove into Ongar on the Central Line.

This year, Santa Special trains will run on November 30 and on December 1, 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22 and 23. Trains leave Ongar at 10am, 11.30am, 1.40pm and 3pm. The fares for Santa Special trains include the train journey and a connecting heritage bus which will collect passengers from the front of Epping Underground Station and pick up people at any bus stop in Epping High Street, through North Weald (High Road) and on to Ongar Station, plus a present for the children and a glass of festive drink and a mince pie for the grown ups. Children aged less than 12 months go free. Tickets for the Santa Specials are now available and selling very fast, so early booking is recommended. Full details can be found on the timetables and fares page on the EOR website at

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