This summer, visitors to County Down can relive the elegance of by-gone railway travel as a season of ‘Summer Steam’ steam trains chuffing their way through the picturesque County Down countryside, along nearly two miles of restored track, begins this July.
And over the last thirty years a small group of volunteers in Downpatrick have painstakingly rebuilt two miles of the line as Ireland’s only full-size working heritage railway, running from the town centre out through St. Patrick’s Country to the ruins of the 12th Century Cistercian Inch Abbey, and every weekend visitors will be able to travel back in time to the golden age of trains.
Railway Chairman Robert Gardiner said that Inch Abbey is a popular destination with train passengers.
“People who have lived in Downpatrick all their lives have travelled on our trains and told us that they were sorry that they’d never been to the Abbey and didn’t realise how beautiful it and this area of the Quoile River was,” he says, “So if the sun’s back out, hop on board and bring a picnic with you and catch one of the later trains back?”
Mr. Gardiner added, “Or if the rainclouds linger, you’re always undercover inside a railway carriage – and hop about our buffet carriage to stop the sarnies getting soggy!”
Hauling the trains will be the “Sugarpuff” engine, or Orenstein & Koppel built steam locomotive No. 1, which used to haul wagons of sugarbeet during her working life for Cómhlucht Siúicre Éireann, the Irish Sugar Company. Her sister locomotive No. 3 is coming back into service this year after a long restoration, so you might get lucky and see her too!
You could also see a classic 1960s diesel locomotive helping out, with ex-Irish Rail diesel locomotive No. 146 providing a fantastic rumble at the start and end of each day, as well as hauling all trains on Sunday, August 26th, our now traditional annual summer diesel day. Kids need to be sure to wave at the driver, and get him to blow the horn for you!
Teas, coffees, cool drinks, buns, biccies and chocolate bars are served all day onboard a 1950s buffet carriage parked at Inch Abbey station.
Mr. Gardiner says “A trip to the station is also much more than boarding the train, with our museum and ‘Carriage Gallery’ visitor centre we bring the golden age of the railway vividly to life and you can find out what impact the railways had on people’s lives, through artefacts from the smallest such as a ticket in the upstairs exhibition, or the largest such as lovingly restored railway carriages in the Carriage Gallery and the stark contrast of the wrecks these vehicles once were when rescued. You can explore the inside of some of the lovingly restored carriages, or climb into the cab of a big diesel locomotive and imagine the life of a drive in the 1950s and 60s.
For the younger train fans, children can enjoy their own “Kids’ Station” in the Gallery, and dress up as a train driver or guard, or have a go driving Thomas the Tank Engine on our model railway – or will the ‘big kids’ want to have a go too?”
You can also visit the lovingly restored Bundoran Junction signal cabin, now taking pride of place at Downpatrick Station rechristened ‘Downpatrick East’, where you can imagine yourself as the signalman controlling the trains and learning about the vital role signalling had on our railways.
For those a little more adventurous, and perhaps live out a childhood dream, you can buy a Footplate Pass for just £20 and get to travel up in the locomotive cab with the driver – you can now book these in advance for a special birthday treat.
Doors open to the public at 1pm each open day, with final trains departing at 4pm and doors closing at 5pm. Tickets cost adults £7.00 return, £5 for children, and £5.50 for senior citizens and other concessions. Children aged three years old or younger can travel free of charge. A family ticket costs £20 for two adults and up to three kids. You can book all tickets online for convenience, including the footplate passes.
You cold also take out membership and join the DCDR Society and get free travel for the entire year, as well as get regular updates on what’s happening at Northern Ireland’s steam centre – or maybe you’d like to volunteer, and one day you could be driving the trains, being a station master, or laying the tracks yourself!
Summer trains start running on Sunday 1st and Sunday 8th July, and then run every Saturday and Sunday from July 14th through to 9th September. The railway also opens on the Bank Holiday Monday, August 27th. Please check the dates carefully before you travel.