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.”