St. Patrick’s Day not only saw the return of Ireland’s patron saint to the town, but also saw a welcome return of a classic carriage back into service at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway.
A team of 10 volunteers of all ages have taken nearly two years and 10,000 hours of work to restore a carriage originally built in 1951 by the Ulster Transport Authority as part of a new train commissioned by the Northern Ireland government as part of their contribution to the Festival of Britain celebrations.
The Festival was a national exhibition held throughout the United Kingdom in the summer of that year, 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.
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 “Festival Express”, which ran between Londonderry and Belfast, and the new stock helped make the 8.25am from Belfast look a little more modern – for the time.
By 1958 the “Festival” coaches had all been converted to be used as diesel railcars, and it is believed No. 728 is the sole survivor of this special train.
It was preserved by the Downpatrick & County Down Railway in September 1991 after withdrawal from Northern Ireland Railways, and had been used solely as a waiting carriage for the local heritage railway’s popular Halloween Ghost Trains and Lapland Express, as well as luckily just surviving an arson attack on the station in December 2002.
However that all changed when the vehicle began full restoration in July 2012 back to passenger service, which included refitting the interior with as-original comfortable moquette seating, wooden panelling, coupled with major mechanical work which saw the reinstatement of brakes which had been removed prior to preservation. The vehicle has also been fitted out with four wheelchair bays for disability access.
Painted in the Ulster Transport Authority’s green livery and sporting their distinctive logo bearing the Red Hand of Ulster, No. 728 formed part of the park and ride service during the St. Patrick’s weekend with the public able to enjoy its charming 1950s atmosphere.
DCDR chairman John Wilson said the restoration work was a ‘marvellous job’, adding, “this ‘Festival’ carriage is an important part of our railway heritage, and I am delighted that passengers can once again travel in it for the first time in over 30 years, and fifty-six years since it was last hauled by a steam locomotive.”
An historic railway signal cabin that lay in an orchard for nearly 60 years is to be restored to its former glory by the Downpatrick and County Down Railway (DCDR) after securing a grant of nearly £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The grant has been awarded as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s new small grants programme “Sharing Heritage”. The project will restore the former Bundoran Junction North signal cabin and create a mechanical signalling demonstration to add to the existing attractions at the Downpatrick heritage railway. Visitors will be able to see the signals in operation when the trains are running and during museum open days.
In its working life, the cabin used to control the north end of Bundoran Junction in Kilskeery, County Tyrone, formerly a major junction for the Great Northern Railway (Ireland), where trains diverged to travel to places like Omagh, Enniskillen, Fintona Junction (where the famous horse tram operated), and Bundoran itself, before the entire line was closed on 1st October 1957.
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 secured this significant piece of railway heritage.”
Paul Mullan, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund NI added their support “We were pleased to support this modest but important heritage project. Over our 20 years we have supported a range of projects with the DCDR to enable them to protect our railway heritage and share it with everyone. This project will help them demonstrate and explain another aspect of our railways’ 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 Ballinamallard 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 Co Fermanagh 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.
To add to the restoration project and working signal exhibition, the project team are keen to obtain any information relating to its former use. They are seeking photographs of signalmen who would have operated it in GNRI days or anyone who worked at Bundoran Junction 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 Museum in Enniskillen.”
The founder of Northern Ireland’s only full-size heritage railway, the Downpatrick & County Down Railway, has been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours for service to railway preservation and tourism in County Down.
Gerry Cochrane was born in 1935 within sight and sound of the old Belfast & County Down Railway. Since early childhood, he has had a strong interest in railways. His final thesis in architecture was based on the study of Working Railway Museums, researched in both Great Britain and Europe as there were none in Northern Ireland.
He joined the South Eastern Education and Library Board and became their Senior Architect and in 1982 he began a process which has resulted in the return of steam to Downpatrick.
During this time, health reasons brought his professional career to a premature end in 1991, but Gerry battled on and continued with the development of the heritage railway and museum from a derelict brown field site to the vibrant living museum it is today.
Whilst he retired from management in 2004, he continues to have an active role in vintage carriage restoration.
Railway Honorary Vice President WF Gillespie said, “When a few of us met in Denvir’s Hotel on a bleak winter night 30 years ago to discuss the possibility of a preserved railway scheme at Downpatrick, it was somewhat unreal, and perhaps none of us – except Gerry Cochrane – really expected that our dreams would ever be realised.”
He continues, “Many obstacles were encountered and there were times when most of us – except Gerry Cochrane – were prepared to give up. However, he is made of sterner stuff, and always sought and found a way through the difficulties.
It was my pleasure and privilege to help clear some of the obstacles, particularly in the early days, and in the process, I came to admire the tenacity and determination of Gerry and other colleagues who joined in the enterprise over the years.
“I am delighted to know of Gerry’s recognition in the New Year’s Honours List. It is richly deserved. I congratulate him and wish him many years of continuing interest in the Railway which he founded.”
DCDR chairman John Wilson said: “We are absolutely delighted that Gerry has received this well-deserved acknowledgment of all his efforts over so many years. He was the founder member of the Society and it is thanks in large measure to his determination that the Railway continues to bring pleasure to the thousands of people who travel on and watch our trains every year.
“Gerry, in his own unique way, has inspired many people to give freely of their time to the community, creating an attraction unique in Northern Ireland and richly deserves this award.”
He continues, “I extend to him and his wife Róisín our heartiest congratulations from all the members of the railway”.
The Downpatrick & Co. Down Railway has expressed its “deep sadness” on learning of the passing of Eddie McGrady on Monday evening. As a prominent figure in the area, it was Eddie McGrady that the railway’s founder, Gerry Cochrane turned to for advice and support in regards the idea of establishing a heritage railway in the town.
Mr Cochrane said, “I first met Eddie in 1982 when he agreed to meet me to discuss my proposals for the restoration of the railway. At that time he was Chairman of Down District Council and his reaction to the proposal would, therefore, be essential.
“In the event, his enthusiasm surprised me and from that day his encouragement was instrumental in getting the project off the ground.”
He continues, “Indeed, throughout the development he was always ready to help on the numerous occasions when difficulties arose and in the early days; as a chartered accountant he acted as our auditor in a voluntary capacity when we were struggling to establish a sound financial footing in those fledgling days.
Mr. Cochrane added, “His contribution to the success of our railway cannot be overstated and he will be sadly missed by all of us who have had the honour of his acquaintance.”
His views were echoed by fellow founder, and DCDR vice-president, Mr. WF Gillespie, “Eddie was at the very first meeting with Gerry and I to discuss getting the Railway off the ground. He was a great help to us in the early stages, especially in establishing our relationship with the Council.”
He added, “In some of my other activities I also had reason to contact Eddie and I always found him to be a real gentlemen giving freely of his time to address the issues brought to him. A man who will be sadly missed by all who were privileged to know him.”
DCDR chairman, John Wilson, added his tribute, “Whilst the Downpatrick & Co. Down Railway has always been apolitical in its ethos and outlook, it is fair to say that without Eddie McGrady’s vital support at the inception of the project, there would be no railway in the town today. Eddie remained a friend of the DCDR throughout the years, and we deeply regret that he will not see our 30th Anniversary in 2015.”
A rare link back to the days when farmers loaded their produce at the local railway station to be sent to Belfast and beyond has been saved by the Downpatrick & County Down Railway.
A century-old wooden railway wagon built in 1911 for the old Belfast & County Down Railway, which is thought to be the sole surviving example of nearly two-hundred built for the local railway line, was recovered from a field near Dromara where it has lain for nearly 60 years.
DCDR museum curator, Neil Hamilton said, “The wagon is a BCDR closed van and has been used as a store, and the roof is covered in tin which has protected the body quite effectively over the years. This wagon is, as far as I know, the only BCDR wagon that is around and in a condition that would be restorable.
He continues, “The condition of the wagon is quite remarkable for its age. The main body roof and panelling are very sound, and the main under frame is very sound apart from some rot on the lower edge areas of the side longitudinal members but in general the frame is very strong which allowed us to lift it.”
“The owner was going to break the wagon up but is a friend of one of our volunteers, so he asked us if we had any interest before he did so – and we are delighted that he did!”
The wagon was lifted from its resting place last Saturday and towed by tractor and trailer from Dromara to Downpatrick, in a move that surely turned some heads on the main road.
Neil added, “Historically it’s a very significant find and fits in with our museums acquisition policy, we set it on a spare metal under frame so we could move it into the Carriage Gallery for storage and display, where it would dry out and a more detailed examination and assessment would be undertaken prior to restoration.”
The wagon can be seen in the Carriage Gallery from this weekend onwards, which marks the start of the Downpatrick & County Down Railway’s “Summer Steam” season, and the DCDR is always looking for people to join its ranks to help restore vehicles such as this wagon, find out more about volunteering at the railway via their website at www.downrail.co.uk or facebook.com/downrail or on twitter @downrail
Killyleagh Castle is gone – no more – as it was dismantled last Wednesday in a surprisingly fast operation, leaving no trace of this once-proud remnant of history.
But before questioning if this is April Fool’s day, fear not, for the turrets and ramparts of the actual Killyleagh Castle still stand.
The “Killyleagh Castle” which met its maker was one of Translink’s old trains, No. 459, which was withdrawn from service last year following the introduction of the last of the new “C4K Trains”, and has finally been cut up for scrap.
The train was one of three units scrapped in recent weeks by Ahoghill firm Thomas Hamill and Sons at Ballymena and Adelaide, using a mammoth demolition crane to lift the engine out and then cut the body in half, before loading it on to the back of a lorry for its final journey to the scrapyard.
Volunteers from the Downpatrick & County Down Railway were also on hand to recover a number of compatible spare parts for other engines.
No. 459 was the last of the 450s, or “Castle Class”, trains delivered to Northern Ireland Railways between 1985 and 1987.
At a time when investment in the railway system was virtually nil, the 450s epitomed the “make-do-and-mend” attitude needed to keep NIR running. Cannabilising 20-year old engines and wheels, the only new part of the trains was their new bodies and interiors.
Denis Grimshaw, a former Managing Director of NIR, explains how one of these nine “new” trains came to be associated with the local landmark.
“The 450-class sets were originally intended for sole use on the Belfast to Larne railway line, where historically some former Northern Counties Railway steam locomotives were called after County Antrim castles – hence the historical connection.”
He continues, “We eventually got nine sets rather than the six anticipated, so we allocated three sets for use on the old Belfast & County Down Railway line to Bangor, and so we decided to choose two castles in County Down, Bangor Castle and Killyleagh Castle, to celebrate that connection.”
The vehicles carried these names in cast nameplates either side of the driver’s cab right up to their withdrawal, when they were removed prior to scrapping.
Suggestions over what should happen to Killyleagh Castle’s nameplates and those of the other 450 Class trains has ranged to displaying them in NIR stations, gifting one to each of the Castles the trains were named after where possible, or display them in a railway museum such as the local Downpatrick & County Down Railway or Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.
A Translink spokesperson said: “Name plates have been recovered and discussions are on-going regarding their future utilisation.”
Currently two Class 450s, No. 458 and 455 “Galgorm Castle” and “Antrim Castle”, are being retained by Translink in reserve, although there are currently no plans to preserve a unit of this class by any of Northern Ireland’s preservation groups.
A new landmark feature for Downpatrick town centre is rising above lower Market Street at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway. An impressive lattice arch, bearing the railway’s name is soaring above the car park, and accompanying brickwork promising to dramatically improve the appearance of this part of the town centre.
Railway chairman and Project Manager John Wilson explains, “We came under-budget for our prestigious Gallery Gallery and visitor centre, and thanks to the generosity of our funders Heritage Lottery Fund and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, rather than see that money unspent suggested funding a number of extra improvements.”
“We have been very keen to regenerate that area of the car park and try to improve the visual attractiveness of the station for some considerable years, something also outlined in the Downpatrick Masterplan, but our resources have always had to go on keeping our vintage fleet of steam and diesel locomotives and carriages running.”
He continues, “Our funders agreed this area needed regeneration and we all wanted something dramatic that had the wow factor, and it was our late chairman Michael Collins who came up with the idea of the arch – inspired by an original feature of the Great Northern Railway station still standing at Cookstown.
“Like all great ideas at the DCDR we thought it was almost too ambitious but we did some mock drawings, asked our consulting engineers Armstrong and Taylor to cost it and we were delighted that they felt it was very doable”
When it came to the brickwork no detail was left undone.
“Historical accuracy has always been the ethos with everything we do at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway,” Mr. Wilson says, “And the dwarf wall replicates the style of brickwork of a similar wall that used to stand at the old Belfast & County Down Railway’s station at Bangor, while the piers copy the brickwork styles of the BCDR’s stations at Cultra and Tullymurry”.
Also, as part of final touches to the Gallery project, a new interpretative display has been installed in the railway’s workshops.
“For some time now visitors have been prevented access to our carriage workshop because of safety issues, but we have now created a dedicated area safely away from machinery or tools where they can go in and watch restoration work go on, along with interpretative displays illustrating carriage construction which complements the new Carriage Gallery perfectly.”
The Downpatrick & County Down Railway will be running its “Shamrock Specials” on St. Patrick’s Day – which you can board at the main station, as well as at Inch Abbey which will be acting as one of the day’s Park and Ride services from the north of the town centre.
The Downpatrick & County Down Railway is on the right lines to complete its massive track renewal project in time for St. Patrick’s Day.
The local volunteer-run heritage railway has been undertaking a major project that has seen several hundred yards of railway line lifted between Downpatrick station and the “Home Junction”, where the two lines to Inch Abbey and the Loop Platform and longer term Ballydugan split, leaving a large gap in the railway.
As part of this project, it has seen historic original railway track materials from the Belfast & County Down Railway reinstated on their old home, almost exactly 60 years since the rail link to Belfast was swept away.
Project Manager David Crone said, “The original railway line was closed in January 1950, and it was in 1953 – sixty years ago – that they started to remove the sleepers and rails and dismantle the old railway.”
He continues, “One of the new bits of track we’re installing is a 1936 built crossing piece from the original line, remarkably it’s still in excellent condition for reuse and so on this anniversary it’s quite befitting to put something back that could’ve been right here over sixty years ago.”
The project, described as “ambitious” is close to reconnecting the two parts and has seen volunteers working every weekend and a small team midweek assisting to get the hole in the track filled.
Mr Crone explained the reasons behind the project, “Long term it will give operational flexibility, allowing two trains to enter and out of the station from either the Inch Abbey line or the Ballydugan line, but more immediately it will fix the height of the trackbed which has subsided over the last twenty years since it was first relaid by our volunteers, which will help combat flooding as the railway was nearly closed twice over winter due to high water levels.”
He continues, “It will also allow us to connect up our signal cabin and erect proper heritage signals, vastly enhancing the authenticity of the railway, as well as making operating it simpler and safer.
“The reason we’re doing it now is because this is the largest window between our Christmas trains and St. Patrick’s Day ‘Shamrock Specials'”, says Mr. Crone, “It’s heavy hard work, and you always risk not getting it done in time for your next public running day but we’re making excellent progress. It’s also very satisfying when you see track going down and materials you’ve sourced from Northern Ireland Railways and Irish Rail – all over Ireland – being put to good use.”
The work involved so far has included lifting 300 yards of railway line, replacing life-expired timber sleepers with new or concrete ones, and renewing the ballast formation with new stone, battling the weather and snowfalls and dealing with the occasional digger breakdown!
A number of new people have joined in to the volunteer track team, and all are welcome, Mr Crone says, “We are still looking for volunteers who would like to help out, especially anyone with any experience in construction. Why not come down one Saturday and try it out? You could find yourself with a very different hobby!”
A large amount of work still needs to be done to replace the missing sections, but railway officials are confident they are on the “right track” to completing it in time for the Shamrock Specials on St. Patrick’s Day.
For many people the New Year heralds a chance to be ‘out with the old but for the volunteers at Downpatrick and County Down Railway time their spring clean is a different proposition. They have decided to replace a large section of the track.
After nearly 3,000 people travelled on Santa’s Lapland Express, the heritage railway is taking advantage of the post-New Year gap in the DCDR’s timetable until St. Patrick’s Day to undertake some vital track renewals.
They intend to lay track which will allow two trains trains to enter and out of the station from either the Inch Abbey line or the Ballydugan line giving greater operational flexibility.
The railway nearly closed twice over Christmas due to high water levels, and a diesel gala event in October had to be rescheduled due to floods, so it is planning to raise the height of the trackbed to combat this.
Part of the track being lifted is among some of the first laid at Downpatrick by the fledgling heritage line in the 1980s. Old worn-out timber sleepers will also be replaced with new or concrete ones.
Project manager David Crone is overseeing the maintenance work, which commenced at the weekend, and he said there was still much work to be done. He has reiterated the DCDR’s appeal for volunteers especially anyone with any experience in construction.
The work undertaken last Saturday, according to project manager David Crone, included:
- Redundant former shed access turnout fully removed.
- South line broken and first panel of temporary track removed.
- Switch section of former shed access turnout relaid on South line as start of West Crossover South turnout
- Most of former Bay turnout removed and stored on now redundant bay line. Switch section and crossing removed but the closure timbers have still to be lifted.
- Loop turnout facing point lock cranks disconnected and removed.
- Both Daewoo and Atlas diggers were working.
- New fence for the back of the station platform following removal of old bay line.
The next jobs are in order of priority:
- Remove remainder of Bay turnout
- Disconnect remainder of fishplates on North line so it can be lifted.
- Excavate and grade trackbed with new stone ballast
- Continue lifting the North line.
“Why not come down one Saturday and try it out?” said David. “You could find yourself with a very different hobby.”
The DCDR’s long held ambition to complete its extension to Ballydugan could finally have received some welcome news.
Down District Council is considering vesting land so that the heritage railway line can be extended, linking the town with the hamlet of Ballydugan.
The extension of the Downpatrick and Co Down Railway (DCDR) has been in the pipeline for 20 years, first announced in 1992, following a recommendation from consultants working for Down District Council on proposals for regeneration projects for the town, but attempts by the DCDR to broker a deal with those who own part of the former trackbed have failed to reach any agreement.
In 2010 the council agreed to open discussions with two landowners in a bid to reach a deal to secure the land, but also decided that if it was unable to do a deal, it would exercise its vesting powers to acquire the land, subject to a suitable valuation and all necessary legal formalities being completed. One of the landowners has refused to sell, while the other has not responded to any council correspondence on the issue.
At the meeting, councillor Colin McGrath said Down Council supports the railway and has previously approved the plan to extend the railway lines.
“This particular request is about vesting the land they require and passing this issue to the Rates Working Party given the spend that’s involved,” he explained.“Down Council can vest land, but the railway cannot.“
Councillor Robert Burgess praised the work of railway officials and said he was in no doubt that the facility would continue to grow in popularity and produce an economic benefit for Downpatrick and the surrounding area.
Councillors John Doris, Garth Craig and Mickey Coogan also agreed to refer the request to vest the land to the Rates Working Party, with committee members informed the issue will be dealt with a Lands Tribunal hearing.
DCDR spokesman Robert Gardiner said: “Twenty years is a long time to try and bring a project to fruition, but the reason we haven’t given up on it is because our passengers keep telling us they want it and asking when it’s going to happen,” he said.
“We really hoped an amicable solution could’ve and indeed still hope it can be found to bring the railway back to Ballydugan”, he says.
The land was sold off in the 1950s by the Ulster Transport Authority after much of the railway system was dismantled. In recent years DCDR’s volunteers have started rebuilding the line on the land that the group access to.
“Railway trackbeds can’t be used for anything else other than cycleways and walkways,” Mr Gardiner said. In the meantime, DCDR has extended a spur to Inch Abbey but say it has reached the “end of the line” there, as it has veered off the original line to Crossgar.
“But at Ballydugan,” he says, “there’s a fantastic lake down there, coupled with Holymount Forest, plus the Lakeside Inn and Ballydugan Mill, and we are very keen to work with these local businesses and the local residents”
Ballydugan Mill owner Noel Killen said the extension would be to everybody’s benefit.
He said: “The land is totally derelict and is overgrown and steep and it’s absolutely of no value to anybody.”