If you’ve ever taken a walk or a cycle along the Comber Greenway or Dundrum Coastal path, you might know it was a former railway line – but have you ever wondered where it went to? It was, in fact the main line from Belfast to Newcastle via Downpatrick.
And over the last thirty years a small group of volunteers in Downpatrick have painstakingly rebuilt two miles of the line as Northern 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 Saturday and Sunday till 9th September 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 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 as they’ve done over most of May, 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, as well as American built ‘Baby Boomer’ diesel locomotive No. 146 providing a fantastic rumble on selected June and July Sundays.
Passengers will also be able to taste the elegance of by-gone railway travel on fifty to one hundred year old carriages through the picturesque County Down countryside along nearly two miles of restored track.
Doors open to the public on both Saturdays and Sundays at 1 o’clock and doors closing at 4 o’clock.
Teas, coffees and cool drinks as well as lots of buns, at highly competitive rates, will be served all day onboard a buffet carriage parked at Inch Abbey station; if travelling in
to the town from Inch Abbey the return journey can be made on any of the services.
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.
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 can get to drive Thomas the Tank Engine on a model railway – or will the big kids want a go too?”
Also opening to the public for the first time this year is 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.
The new signal cabin is easy to get to, at the end of the main platform in Downpatrick – and is the only genuine vintage signal cabin that is also wheelchair accessible.
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.
Adults £6.00 return, £4.50 for children and £5.50 for senior citizens. Children aged three years old or below go free. A family ticket costs £18 for 2 adults + 2 kids. Tickets provide all-day access to travel on trains and visit all of the attractions at the railway – stay as long as you like.
Or you can take out membership and join the DCDR Society and get free travel for the entire summer months, as well as get regular updates on what’s happening at Northern Ireland’s only full size heritage railway.
Downpatrick & County Down Railway’s summer season starts on Saturday 17th June this year, and runs every Saturday and Sunday through to September 10th. With a choice of steam or diesel trains depending on which date you visit, there’s something for everyone from the die-hard enthusiast to the family looking for a fun day out.
Most of our running days are steam, but please check before you travel to be sure. Diesel trains operate on Sundays 18th & 25th June, 2nd & 9th July and 27th August.
Trains depart from 1pm-4pm on every running day this summer. Our opening times have changed this year, so please check out the details here.
Our trains will run from Downpatrick station to Inch Abbey each day to our standard timetable, which you can view here.
Our newest attraction this year is Downpatrick East Signal Cabin, which has just been officially opened after a long restoration project; you can also visit the museum, carriage gallery, model railway and buffet as usual, and enjoy a walk to Inch Abbey itself if the weather is nice. (Good luck, you know what summer is like here!)
We are also running a steam service on Bank Holiday Monday, 28th August, and look out for details of our European Heritage Open Days events on Saturday 9th and Sunday 10th September.
The railway is open on Wednesdays as well for access to the carriage gallery and museum. If you are travelling a long distance, please check to make sure before travelling.
If you have any questions, please get in touch with us here.
An historic railway signal cabin that lay in an orchard for nearly 60 years has been restored to its former glory by the Downpatrick and County Down Railway (DCDR) with the help of a £9,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
In its working life, the cabin used to control the north end of the triangular Bundoran Junction in Kilskeery, County Tyrone, formerly a major junction for the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) network, where trains including the famous ‘Bundoran Express’ diverged to travel to places like Omagh, Enniskillen, Fintona Junction (where the famous horse tram operated), and the seaside resort Bundoran itself, before the entire line was closed sixty years ago on 30th September 1957.
The cabin was formally opened to the public by veterans of the old GNR(I) Railway on Saturday 3rd June, along with other invited guests.
Railway Chief Civil Engineer, David Crone, said, “Very little of the railway infrastructure from the west of the province survives so we are delighted to have restored this significant piece of railway heritage.”
David Crone continued the story of the cabin, “While Bundoran Junction Station survives as a private dwelling, we didn’t think any of the small signal cabins still survived until a chance discussion with one of our members and a Fermanagh local on boat in the middle of Lough Erne!
“He told us that the former Bundoran Junction North cabin had been saved to be used as a garden shed in a Fermanagh home.”
Mr Crone explains the scene that they found, “The top half of the signal cabin had lain for over 50 years in an orchard in Ballinamallard where it had been put to use as a very superior summerhouse but had suffered somewhat in later years due to age and the orchard becoming a bit overgrown.
“The location was known to a few ex-Great Northern Railway veterans in the area who kept the cabin’s survival and details of the exact location a well-guarded secret. When the site came due for re-development the owners were very keen to see the cabin saved, and our friends from the Headhunters Railway Museum in Enniskillen helped us recover it in 2011.
Whilst initial inspection revealed that although the base was rotten, the vast majority of the structure was sound and would be suitable for restoration and a new use.”
He continues, “This has involved essentially rebuilding the entire base of the cabin, building a new brick base using reclaimed bricks, as well as sourcing an original lever frame from our friends in Irish Rail, that returns the cabin to its original purpose of controlling the track and signals in our station.”
Railway chairman, Robert Gardiner, added, “For us as a heritage railway and accredited museum it’s so much more rewarding to be able to restore a building that has some real provenance behind it, something you would have seen in use if you were a railway traveller in the west of Northern Ireland, rather than creating a mock replica of something.”
Selwyn Johnston, Curator of Headhunters Railway Museum who helped uncover the cabin’s location, also congratulated the restoration, “The volunteers at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway are to be congratulated for their foresight in saving this unique part of our railway heritage and subsequently restoring the signal cabin to its former glory once again.
“Former railway employees who worked on the Great Northern Railway are looking forward to attending the official opening of the signal cabin, which is extremely poignant as this year marks the 60th anniversary of the closure of rail services in Fermanagh. They will be joined by those who lived in Bundoran Junction after the railways closure and have fond memories of the signal cabin.”
Tony McCusker, Member of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s NI Committee added “The discovery of this modest but important piece of heritage nestling at the bottom on a garden was a lovely story and we were delighted to be able to help it with the next part of its story. Through our small grant programme we were able to help the DCDR team to transport the signal box to their Downpatrick museum site and to painstakingly restore it to its former glory. The signal box is now looking great and adds to the wealth of attractions at Downpatrick railway museum. It is thanks to National Lottery players that we can help fund heritage projects, large and small.”
To add to the restoration project and working signal exhibition, the project team are keen to obtain any Great Northern memorabilia or photographs so they can include this in an interpretative display in the restored cabin.
Mr Crone adds, “We are also interested in contacting anyone who has recollections of life at the Junction as these memories are as much part of the cabin as the wood that makes up its fabric. If anyone has anything
they could share we would be grateful if they contact either ourselves or Headhunters Railway Museum in Enniskillen.”
The grant has been awarded as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s new small grants programme ‘Sharing Heritage’. The project aims to create a publicly accessible mechanical signalling demonstration to add to the existing attractions at the Downpatrick heritage railway.
Visitors will be able to explore the signal cabin themselves at the start of the DCDR’s summer train running season, beginning every weekend starting from 17th June.
The volunteers of the Downpatrick & County Down Railway are celebrating after a little piece of local railway heritage comes home nearly 70 years after the original line closed. But what is that metal disc that our Chief Civil Engineer David Crone is holding?
DCDR curator Neil Hamilton explained “We managed to win this original BCDR single line tablet from the recent auction in Birr of the late John O’Meara’s huge collection of Irish railway artefacts. This tablet covered the section of the old Belfast and County Down Railway from Downpatrick South Junction, near our Loop Platform, to the next major station at Dundrum.”
Downpatrick was a rare example in Ireland’s railways with a triangular layout that required three signal cabins to control it.
Mr Hamilton explained the purpose of this tablet, “Train drivers needed to be in possession of this tablet in order so that their trains could enter the single line of railway track.”
He adds that this Victorian piece of safety engineering had a long self life, “Travellers on the Coleraine-Londonderry rail line may have seen signalmen handing ‘hoop’ type carriers to drivers up until last year – well, a tablet similar to this would have been inside the hoop pouch.
“Tablets were issued by the signalmen at either end of the section. Only one tablet could be withdrawn at a time, which provided protection against a head on collision as no two trains could be on the same section of track.”
Mr Hamilton adds, “This tablet will take pride of place in our display alongside another tablet in our collection that controlled the north end of the Downpatrick Triangle from the North Junction to Crossgar”.
He continues, “We’re delighted that we were able to save this for people to see in our museum for years to come. It would be a real shame to lose such gems as this from the museum sector into private collections.”
If you have an item of railway memorabilia that you would like to donate to the DCDR, or help with any project at the DCDR and you are thinking about joining as a volunteer, then please get in touch today!
We’re running steam trains on Monday, 29th May for the Late Spring Bank Holiday. If you’re looking for a great way to spend the afternoon, come rain or shine our steam train will be running and can give you and the kids the experience of train travel as it used to be.
All our usual facilities will be available, as well as your train trip to and from Inch Abbey and a visit to the buffet carriage. Find out what to do on your visit here.
Note that our trains are now departing from 1pm to 4pm from Downpatrick. See our Timetable & Fares for details.
For railway buffs of all ages looking for a day out, there’s another chance to catch the steam train at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway on this year’s May Days, Monday 1st May and 29th May.
Coming straight after the popular ‘Easter Eggspress’ trains, railway chairman Robert Gardiner says the May Day bank holiday is the perfect chance to take another trip to Inch Abbey or to see the delights of a real steam train for anyone who did not get the chance at Easter, or those who just couldn’t wait to come back!
“As well as fun for the children, mums and dads also get the chance to experience rail travel at its most traditional, as passengers will be able to taste the elegance of by-gone railway travel on fifty to one hundred year old carriages through the picturesque County Down countryside along nearly two miles of restored track.
“Refreshments from teas and coffees, as well as lots of buns, at highly competitive rates, will be served all day onboard a buffet carriage parked at Inch Abbey station; if travelling in to the town from Inch Abbey the return journey can be made on any of the services.”
Mr. Gardiner says “A trip to the station museum and the ‘Carriage Gallery’ visitor centre brings the golden age of the railway vividly to life and looks at the impact that 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.”
Children can enjoy their own “Kids’ Station” in the Gallery, climb into a vintage locomotive cab and dress up as a train driver or guard, or can get to drive Thomas the Tank Engine on a model railway – or will they let the ‘big kids’ get a go too?”
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 need to be 18+ to do this).
Tickets cost £6.00 adults, £4.50 children and senior citizens, whilst children aged below three years old go free! A family ticket is £18. Online booking is not available for this event.
Dogs are welcome on our trains, provided they are kept under control.
Parking is available at both Inch Abbey and Downpatrick Stations.
Last admissions are at 4:15pm. Trains depart from 1:30pm-4:30pm, the station is open until 5:30pm.
See our Timetable & Fares webpage for further information.
There’ll be eggs-travagant fun at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway with eggs galore on this year’s Easter Eggspress, running over the Easter weekend.
The bunnies are already hopping the rails at the local heritage railway, and the Easter Eggspress is a unique and special treat for kids and a great way to say ‘Happy Easter!’ for all the family. The train will be used for excursions from the town centre from 1.30pm till 4.30pm on Saturday 16th April, Easter Sunday 17th April, & Easter Monday 18th April. Railway Chairman Robert Gardiner says that young passengers receive a treat from a special guest, “The Easter Bunny has bounced into the station for this weekend who’ll be hopping with joy to give them their Easter Eggs.”
And this year, the Easter Bunny wants to play a game and is creating an Egg Trail Hunt for wannabe eggsperts, as DCDR tour guide Frank Dick explains, “The Easter Bunny has brought down some of her friends, small teddies and bunnies, but they’re very shy and it’s the job of visitors to track them down. Families will receive a guide to their hunt with their tickets to help ‘eggsplore’ the railway and gather up the info on the card. Each bunny has a large letter which together make up a two word message.”
He continues, “They then have to reveal this secret phrase to the Easter Bunny who, if they get it right, will reward them of an Easter Egg of their choice.”
And as well as fun for the children, mums and dads also get the chance to experience rail travel at its most traditional, as passengers will be able to taste the elegance of by-gone railway travel on fifty to one hundred year old carriages through the picturesque County Down countryside along nearly two miles of restored track. Teas and coffees, as well as lots of buns, at highly competitive rates, will be served all day on board a vintage buffet carriage parked at Inch Abbey station; if travelling in to the town from Inch Abbey the return journey can be made on any of the services.
Mr. Gardiner also commented, “A trip to the station museum and the Carriage Gallery visitor centre brings the golden age of the railway vividly to life and looks at the impact that 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.
“For the younger train fans, children can enjoy their own Kids’ Station in the Gallery, and dress up as a train driver or guard for a family selfie using some of the Victorian props and costumes provided in the dressing up area, in a carriage or beside the 1875 steam engine.
“On the station they can get to drive Thomas the Tank Engine on a model railway – or will they let the big kids get a go too?”
“For those a little more adventurous, and perhaps to fulfil a childhood dream, you can buy a Footplate Pass for just £20 and get to travel up in the locomotive cab with the driver.” A reasonable level of fitness and mobility is required to take part in a footplate experience.”
Tickets cost £7 for all ages, and can be booked on the DCDR’s website.
We were delighted to be offered this gem recently – the original headboard carried on the named UTA Express Train “The Festival”, which ran between Belfast & Derry~Londonderry.
The Festival of Britain was a national exhibition held throughout the United Kingdom in the summer of 1951, organised to give the post-war country a feeling of recovery in the aftermath of the Second World War and to promote the UK’s contribution to science, technology, industrial design, architecture and the arts.
Although it looks a bit out of place on our tank engine compared to the Moguls it was originally carried on back in the day, there is a very real DCDR link to this train in the form of our carriage No. 728, which started life as a carriage on the named train – before becoming an MPD driving trailer, and finally an NIR 70 class intermediate trailer.
This new rake of carriages was built at the UTA’s Duncrue Street workshops in Belfast, based on older pre-war standard LMS (London Midland & Scottish Railway) designs and were used as one of Ireland’s few named trains.
The headboard was bought by a private consortium and was donated to the DCDR museum, after it was discovered by a signage collector in an attic!
Our cheeky CME posed this photo of the headboard on an unlikely locomotive next to carriage No. 728:
With car parking at a premium in the St. Patrick’s Carnival, the Downpatrick & County Down Railway will be offering a ‘rail’ alternative to carnival goers with some St. Patrick’s Day ‘Shamrock Steam.’
In conjunction with Newry, Mourne & Down District Council, the railway will be offering a Park’n’Ride service on the north side of the town from their station on the Belfast Road directly into the heart of the carnival between noon and 5pm on St. Patrick’s Day, Friday 17th March, eliminating the need to navigate the town centre.
Railway Chairman, Robert Gardiner, says that this St. Patrick’s Day boarding at the Inch Abbey terminus is a sure way of beating the traffic and letting you steam into the town for the festival celebrations.
“We know that many people in from the Belfast and Killyleagh roads end up parking far from the town and end up having to walk a fair distance into the town centre,” he says, “So when you park at our Inch Abbey Station you can walk onto a vintage train that will take you into the heart of the carnival!”
Inch Abbey Station will be signposted with AA yellow signage, and stewards will be on hand to help manage traffic and parking at both the Abbey carpark and the station carpark.
But as well as providing a means of getting from A to B on St. Patrick’s Day, Mr. Gardiner suggests a visit to Inch Abbey itself, a ruined 12th Century Cistercian Abbey.
He says, “Alternatively if you’re already in the town, you can climb onboard at Downpatrick and travel out and visit this glorious Christian heritage site while celebrating Ireland’s Patron Saint.”
He adds, “You also get the best view of Down Cathedral, the site of St. Patrick’s Grave, from on board the train.”
Tickets will be available on the day at Inch Abbey and Downpatrick stations, Park and Ride return tickets cost £6.00 adult, £4.50 children, £5.50 senior citizens, while children aged three years old or below go free.
Refreshments will be served onboard a buffet carriage while you wait for the train at Inch Abbey. The railway museum exhibition and Carriage Gallery visitor centre will also be open, as well as an interpretative display actually inside the carriage workshop allowing you to see the work that goes on behind the scenes.