The Steps to the North Pole

The North Pole Express. © Sweaty Dave, Going Postal 2021.

At this time of year there are many traditions that people follow – school carol services and nativity plays; putting up a tree; lights on the front of the house; Black Friday then Cyber Monday; Christmas parties and black eye Friday; presents for teacher, the list goes on and on. One that many find vital is the pre-Christmas trip to see Santa, preferably on a train. We always did so with our kids, at different locations with varying levels of realism/magic.

Doing so introduced me to Tanfield railway some 20 years ago, a friendly place with what we thought was the best event in the area. You can’t call it the ‘Santa Express’ – Disney have the trademark for that for the Tom Hanks film and do prosecute- it has to be the ‘North Pole Express ‘

Each year the railway run trains on a number of days from the last weekend in November, the first three of December then Tuesday 21st up to and including Christmas Eve. It uses two stations – East Tanfield where people arrive, taking a 12 minute ride to Andrew’s House, 2 miles away aka the North Pole.

For Old Trout and the maths gang, it is 8 trains a day for 12 days, five carriages 1890s four wheel wooden carriages holding 40 children per train with their parents/grandparents – so 4000 children get to see Santa, with roughly 12,000 travellers – 1000 a day! At £16 or £17 a ticket, they are cheaper than many places but feels manageable for people without giving things away. The children’s tickets make little profit, the adults are better. The revenue is a vital lifeline to help cover the remaining winter months when few trains will run.

People start asking when they will be on sale around Easter time. They grumble about the cost, but in mid-October when they went on sale, all 12,000 sold in 90 minutes after one mention on Facebook – faster than many rock concerts. So many are disappointed, but we really don’t have the capacity to do more. A few tickets end up on ebay for double face value – touts for Santa!  Costs are not insubstantial either – 4000 presents to buy and wrap (gender and age related), 10,000 mince pies, teas, coffees and a lorry or two full of coal, which itself costs £10k a load.

Preparation starts in September, with the running down of services while the construction of a grotto begins. A single old waiting room is stripped of all elements down to brick walls and stone floor then a full set of walls and ceiling are installed – dragged out of storage in an old freight van.
If people are feeling particularly active the sets can be used for Halloween – but it takes a lot of work for what is really only one weekend.

Operations finish at the end of October. Until then the work is hidden behind the scenes – ensuring engines are in ticket with boiler inspections & washouts, that the carriages are all fully working and agreeing which stock will be used, if it is to be rotated or used all the way through, what reserve stock and engines are there? Normal operations this year have only involved four trips up and down the line in a day, with at least half an hour between turns, dedicated compartments to ensure covid compliance. North Pole Express puts a much greater demand upon crews and equipment with a shuttle constantly running between the two stations – a 12 minute run with 10 minutes to run the engine round the train, pick up signal token, coal, water etc and 8 or 9 trains a day – add in the first and last movements to get back to base and it can involve 20 trips along the 2 miles of track. With engines usually being at least 70 years old, they will have problems at some point, so a spare loco is steamed on each day in case they are needed – plus a diesel rescue loco to shunt in the yard and for any problems. One locomotive will use around £400 of coal in a day.

With five carriages to move up a steep line, a decent sized engine is needed. Horden, an 0-6-0 tank engine, weighing in at 32 tonnes is large enough to cope, many of the others available are too light on their own to cope on a wet day, so would need to be doubled up – one up front, one behind. It is an option but needs two crews. As the other large engine, 49 is out with boiler trouble, Horden will have to run the show for the entire duration.

Last train of the day
Snow as they head to the North Pole © Sweaty Dave, Going Postal 2021.

The roster is built up based upon volunteers available time, each day needing qualified driver, fireman, cleaners, signaller, guard, diesel driver, crossing keeper, Duty Officer (running the day) and lots more people manning the carpark, the ticket office, the café, the platforms and Santa and his helpers of course! Those on board need to have passed medicals, exams and assessments every two years to ensure safety.  Most volunteers are retired, but some key staff do have day jobs or are at college, hence mainly weekend operations.  Drivers and fireman have to come in early to make steam – at least three hours before the first movement, three and a half hours on a Saturday when the engine is starting from cold. That’s a 7am or 6.30am start. The engine needs to be ready with the train hooked up by 10am to run down to the end of the line as Empty Carriage Stock (ECS), the first passengers being booked for 10.30am. Any delay will affect the rest of the day with little time to recover.

The last train isn’t back to the shed until after 5.50pm if on time – with damping down and putting away that is more than 12 hours on shift for crews, with few breaks. If they were to do two days in a row, less than 12 hours rest. Neither of those is ideal or permitted, so splitting shifts into morning/afternoon is necessary – needing to rely upon the goodwill of more qualified staff – I do not envy the roster clerk’s role, cajoling the small number of unpaid volunteers – we’re always looking for more.

Back at the North Pole, Gala tents have gone up to accommodate the visitors – one to shelter them while queuing for Santa, the other as an overflow for the café. They are the sturdy semi-permanent tents you often see, plastic sided with windows and 1 1/2in aluminium tube work, the canvas helping hold it all together and bungees fixing the material to the frame. They are fairly large – 20m or 30m are not unusual. They are a bit of a jigsaw puzzle to put together with different length poles for sides to ridges – an easy mistake to make… Once up they need to be lined if you’re really going for it, equipped with emergency lights and dressed with tinsel, garlands and fairy lights. The café is similarly covered in tinsel, the outside of the building has garlands and lights upon fences, on posts, on two Christmas trees and the bridge. The only stipulation being no green or red Christmas lights near the signals for crew confusion. We thought about putting some lit elements at an interim station but as it is unmanned anything left is likely to go walkabout.

Tent before
The tent before the storm – ready for final dressing. © Sweaty Dave, Going Postal 2021.

A ticket will get you an invitation to arrive at a set time – say 2.30pm. Many tear up at 2.30pm worried they’ve missed the train and not being the easiest place to find, not an unusual situation. To cater for this and give a bit more value for money, the ticket gives half an hour leeway – time to get parked, booked in, to go and see the face painter, the crafts and a petting zoo of sheep/goats/chickens in the carriage shed of the decorated station while you wait for the train – it makes it more of an event than just pushing you onto a train, up and back. You then travel in some 1880s carriages (unheated and rarely lit) to the North Pole.

The Animals in the waiting area. © Sweaty Dave, Going Postal 2021.

The grotto tent includes a scene of moving models to view while queuing, you then go into the first part of the grotto – set up as an outside scene (brick curtain backing) with motorised elves keeping busy, making presents – the sort of shop window display seen in big cities, then into the final room to see Santa. With 40 children per train, half are directed to the café beforehand, for juice and crisps, the other half into Santa then swap over – the whole train seen and ready to go back in about 45 minutes. Fortunately that’s about the time it takes for the train to head back to base, pick up the next set of passengers and return – barring problems it works well. There are a few other items to entertain people – a sleigh for their photo opportunities and a few elf from the shelf hidden around for the older kids to find.

One of the Santas is just perfect – white hair and a booming voice, he is all you’d hope for. The kids reaction is priceless, many completely agog with jaws on the floor as they meet him. They all come away happy and excited. The whole thing taking around an hour and a quarter.

This year was looking better than last – less covid restrictions and all ready to start on Saturday, November the 27th when Storm Arwen rolled in – 80mph gales overnight on Friday caused widespread damage and all feared the worst. An early morning inspection by the engine driver, first to arrive to fire up, showed one of the gala tents was destroyed and no idea of how bad the line through the woods would be. Volunteers were on site by 8am to survey the extent of the damage. The tent was in the main scrap, having been torn from it’s lashings, twisted into pieces and dumped onto the platform having gone over a 4ft stone wall.

Tent destroyed
The aftermath of the storm. © Sweaty Dave, Going Postal 2021.

A track party headed off down the line, reporting four or five trees down on the line – Dan the tree surgeon was dispatched to deal with them, the steam engine already up and running, following him to pick up the wood. A 9am meeting convened and agreed the day had to be cancelled and all ticket holders informed – with so many roads closed, the railways off, it was safer to rebook them and take the day to recover. A huge effort ensued, replacing the tent with a smaller spare, removing trees from the line and clearing up the damage.

Removing fallen trees
Saturday – clean up the fallen trees and reopen the line.
© Sweaty Dave, Going Postal 2021.

The images of cancellation had been picked up by the local press, who turned up to interview and associated press who ran a piece in a number of local papers and the Metro. Passengers were very supportive – offering to come and help clear up. Rather than disappoint those who were booked, we decided there were two options –

  1. Run an extra day on a rest day of the 22nd December, but that would mean seven operating days in a row
  2. Add an extra train to eight running days – that added about 45 minutes per day, making them even longer, but with split shifts more manageable – the chosen option.
Tent on Saturday night
The replacement tent up by Saturday night. © Sweaty Dave, Going Postal 2021.

The Sunday ran as the first day and went well – people amazed and grateful we had it all back up and running – the winds were light and it even snowed! Frozen points at the outset caused a blip but overall the day saw us nearly keep to timetable. Engine crews were pushed harder than they were used to, but all areas coping well. The carpark filled to near capacity – there being three trains worth of people there before the first train came back and you really really don’t want them parking on the fast main road outside. It is amazing how one family will turn up in three or even more cars. All were in good spirits, many in Christmas jumpers, a few in Pyjamas (we’d warned them it’d be chilly).

This weekend will be the first of the longer days with 9 trains, Boris means masks on the train and indoors. The majority of people have rebooked, we just need to live up to the expectations once again.

To see people’s feedback go to the Tanfield facebook page where people post their memories of the day.

© Sweaty Dave 2021

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file