Volunteering on Santa’s steam-powered express in Dublin
Railway Preservation Society of Ireland’s volunteers bring Christmas magic to the rails
The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland’s Santa Express makes its way through Drumcondra under the shadow of Croke Park. Photograph: Kevin O’Brien
How do you know when Christmas has arrived? When your breath sticks to the air on the dark morning commute? When Penneys stocks Christmas jumpers or when you get to stay up late for the Late Late Toy Show? For some, it’s when Santa arrives in Dublin. Not by sleigh and reindeer but by another form of magic.
His very own steam train.
Shortly before 10am on the first Saturday in December, the crowds began to swarm around Connolly Station. Any ordinary traveller must have been wondering what was going on. An incident? A celebrity? Ryan Tubridy in a Christmas jumper?
Blue and cream carriages were sitting simmering in the platform, warm from the steam heating. I stood by one of the doors waiting for the passengers, rostered as one of two coach stewards attending to carriage F.
It wasn’t an unexpected career change but a chance to help out where I could, and return the favour in a sense. I was volunteering with the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland’s (RPSI) annual Santa Express trains.
I’d travelled on it numerous times as a child (and an adult) and when asked to help out for the day, I jumped at the chance.
I arrived at Connolly early to help get everything ready and check passengers’ tickets as they boarded. While they got settled into their seats, our locomotive arrived.
There was a wheesh and bark as the ever-faithful engine No 4 gently attached to the train. Clouds of steam hung in the air and it was as if she was inhaling and exhaling, taking deep breaths before her sprint to Maynooth.
She (engines are always a she) was built in England in 1947 and worked in Northern Ireland until 1971, eight years after steam was abolished under CIÉ in the Republic. Some passengers couldn’t believe it was a real-life steam engine.
There are those who think they’re long-dead parts of history, like metal dinosaurs, or only exist in stories like Thomas the Tank Engine. Sitting next to the Dart platforms in Connolly, one passerby asked me: “Is it electric?”
Once the families of the giddy and excited children were comfortably on board, we were ready to depart.
The carriage doors banged shut, the guard’s whistle echoed under the station roof and No 4 brought the train out through the Dublin suburbs. A shrill blast of the whistle rang out as we passed the signals under the shadow of Croke Park and a cheer went up inside the carriages.
The rhythm of a steam engine echoing in through the windows is something a world apart from the rumbling commuter trains that usually run on this line.
One of the excited families, the Harpurs from Waterford, had spotted me in my Christmas jumper on the Luas earlier that morning.
Thomas (8) and Sarah (4) had come up to Dublin the night before as a surprise from their parents, Mary and Joe.
Everyone gets the chance to meet Santa, of course, and no one goes home empty-handed
“We were watching a TV programme about the preservation society so I Googled it and saw that they did a Santa train,” said Mary. With tablet and laptop ready, mam and dad were just in time to purchase the tickets online the moment they went on sale in October.
They were lucky too – all 6,500 tickets on 17 trains sold out almost instantly. This figure would account for half of the society’s total annual passenger numbers in the Republic. One of the other volunteers later told me:“It’s easier to get All Ireland final tickets!”
“The volunteers really love it and you can tell. It’s a lovely atmosphere. It’s so different,” Mary added. “We’ve been to a couple of other Santy things and some are gone very over-engineered, whereas this is just genuinely lovely.”
Thomas cuts in: “I love this place. This is the best train I’ve ever been on!”
Thomas is hoping Santa will be delivering him a new model steam engine for Christmas. His sister Sarah has her fingers crossed for rollerskates.
Some guitars struck up behind us as the carollers made their way through the aisles. A few smartly turned out elves followed and the jolly fat man himself was close behind.
Everyone gets the chance to meet Santa, of course, and no one goes home empty-handed. Selection boxes straight from Santa’s sack and complimentary tickets for tea, coffee or a drink in the bar car were included in every fare. I lost count of how many of each I handed out.
At Maynooth, passengers alighted for more photographs with Santa and a closer look at the engine. On a narrow platform and with a throng of people all around, armed with flashing cameras and smartphones, she seemed more like a celebrity than a machine.
A lucky few of the gathered congregation were given the chance to look inside the cab of the engine.
I remember my first time seeing it and being hypnotised by all the brass, levers, handles, hissing steam and the roaring fire. Visible through a small door close to the floor of the cab, it’s what I imagined the inside of a dragon’s belly looked like as a child.
Peter Rigney, one of the society’s longest-serving members, was there when the first Santa trains departed Mullingar in 1981 and has seen how things have changed over the years.
“You can walk through the carriages now and hear people speaking Chinese, parents giving out to their kids in Romanian. It’s a sample demographic of the families being raised in Ireland now.”
The RPSI is an all-island society with a base in Dublin and its main headquarters in Whitehead, Co Antrim. As it happened, the society’s president, Dr Joan Smyth CBE, was on the train and summed it all up succinctly.
“It’s really important we work together to preserve steam. There’s still a magic about steam trains.” I’m confident our passengers would agree with her.
Three trains ran on that day and we volunteers were kept on our feet; answering questions; helping out; cleaning tables and sweeping up between runs – 1,246 happy passengers were well on their way home by 6pm, while I was picking up banana peels and wiping spilled coffee off table tops.
We ask ourselves why we do this voluntary work. While it is partly to help preserve a means of travel from yesteryear and partly because everyone needs a hobby, I think mostly it is knowing you’ve helped create wonderful Christmas memories for the families who took the train.