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.