If you were travelling between Enniskillen and Belfast yesterday on the M1 you may have seen a very unusual sight – a signal cabin perched on top of a low-loader lorry on its way to its new home at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway.
The cabin used to control the north end of Bundoran Junction in Kilskeery, County Tyrone, which used to be a major junction for the Great Northern Railway (Ireland), where trains diverged to travel to places like Omagh, Enniskillen, Fintona Junction, and of course Bundoran itself, before the entire line was closed by the Stormont government on 1st October 1957.
There were once three cabins controlling the triangular junction in the remote location – one at the three points – North, South and West Cabins.
While Bundoran Junction Station survives as a private dwelling, none of the small signal cabins were thought to still survive – until a chance discussion between a DCDR member with a Fermanagh local on boat in the middle of Lough Erne revealed the location of the former Bundoran Junction (North) cabin – it had been saved to be used as a garden shed in a Ballinamallard home.
The DCDR Signalling team had just recently completed their signalling plan for Downpatrick Station, and had recommended that part of the run-round loop should be controlled by a ground frame or small signal cabin, especially if the proposed St. Patrick’s Centre link was built.
As a result, a new-build structure was proposed, but after learning of the existence of this cabin, a recce party earlier in the year, working with Selwyn Johnston of Headhunter’s Railway Museum in Enniskillen, identified the location and approached the owners, who were very keen to see the cabin preserved. Initial inspection revealed that although the base had considerable rot, the vast majority of the structure was sound.
Selywn said “Local railway enthusiasts have always known the location of the cabin, although in the interests of protecting it against vandalisim, its existence and location has remained almost secret. In 2002, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the closure of railways in Fermanagh, a nostalgic bus trip was organised to retrace the route of the GNRI from Enniskillen to Bundoran and in particular to allow former railway employees the unique opportunity to see the North Cabin, which resided under a sprawling apple tree in a Ballinmallard garden.”
He continues, “At that time former railway employees and local enthusiasts expressed a wish to protect the cabin for future generations, however no suitable location was ever identified, until DCDR made an approach in 2011. Former railway employees, such as Billy Hawthorne (GNRI Fireman) who worked on the Bundoran branch and now resides in Bolton, were absolutely delighted when he heard that the signal box was going to be moved to Downpatrick and once again become part of a working railway.
“Indeed several former GNRI employees who worked on the Bundoran Branch line are looking forward to visiting Downpatrick whenever the signal box is in position. Headhunters Railway Museum are delighted that the DCDR are committed to protecting the signal box and that a unique part of the GNRI Bundoran Branch is now in Downpatrick. ”
The Signalling team worked on creating a cradle for the delicate structure after the recce, and went down to Ballinamallard early morning on Saturday 6th August. A hiab lorry from Tempo-based hauliers M-Tranz, abnormal load specialists, was used to load and transport the cabin to Downpatrick.
The cabin arrived around 9pm in Downpatrick, and was successfully offloaded – although the rotten base was giving cause for concern if it would survive the lift! However all was well, and the cabin is now safe and sound in Downpatrick yard, where the team will work to restore it to its former glory, before it is moved to its permanent home at the east end of Downpatrick platform.
This cabin which is a good example of a GNR(I) small cabin enhances an original plan for a ground frame at the St Patrick’s end of the station to control the engine run around and shed exit at that end of the station. A 20 lever frame will enable a working cabin to be commissioned in due course sited at the rear of the platform next to the ramp. A key feature of this cabin will be that it will be at platform height with an entrance directly off the platform.
The sitting of the current main cabin between the tracks at the country end of the station unfortunately means that public access will not be possible during running days and the operating floor steps precludes any form of disabled access. Having a small cabin with its low level windows and easy access will enable visitors to see the signal levers, wires, and controls work. They will be able to have this explained by the porter signalman who will operate the run around and accompanying signals which will be an important part of the museums interperative display of artifacts which can be seen working as intended by their original victorian designers.
Once the cabin is fully restored and resited we would like to include one or two photographs of the cabin in its original context at Bundoran Junction. The restoration team would be particularly keen to locate an old familly photograph of one or more of the original signalmen, preferably either at the Junction or in the cabin for future display as part of the Cabin’s story.