Covid and reopening update – August 2021

Covid and reopening update – August 2021

It has been quite a while since our last update, so here’s the latest update on what’s been happening at the railway and our plans to reopen to the public.

The past 18 months has been an incredibly tough time for the railway, with prolonged periods of closure and major loss of income. This has been offset somewhat by money obtained from various grant bodies and donations from the public and our members. We have been considering our plans for reopening and we feel that the time is right to share the latest news with our members.

The main reason we remain closed now is not actually Covid itself – it is the massive amount of ‘ordinary work’ that needs to be completed before we can open the doors again and allow members and the public to experience Ireland’s only full-size heritage railway again.

When will we reopen?

Two steam locomotives are parked outside the locomotive shed. A volunteer is on top of one of them making adjustments to valves. A second volunteer watches from the ground, wearing a white T shirt that is very grubby.

Both our operational steam locos are seen being tested to make sure everything is OK before the boiler inspection.

Following a review of the backlog of work the railway is facing, we are sorry to say that we will not be opening this summer at all.

Our current plans are to open fully for Christmas trains this year. We are also considering opening for limited trains over the school half term holidays, and perhaps opening the museum and carriage gallery as well for visitors, but these plans are not yet confirmed.

Why aren’t we opening sooner?

Most people expect all businesses to be operating more or less as normal again, subject to current public health restrictions. Unfortunately, DCDR is not a typical business, and we remain closed for three main reasons. 

Firstly, regulatory work required to reopen has been immense. The days of ‘just playing with trains’ are long gone – indeed such a mindset has been inappropriate for decades. We had our five-year inspection from HSENI/DFI to obtain our operators licence earlier this year. This was to full ORR standards and we passed the inspection with flying colours, albeit with the usual few extra jobs the inspector wanted. It was a huge task to get through this, especially our Compliance Director Ian Cross who deserves everyone’s thanks for his tireless efforts on this. Without this, we would be unable to operate at all.

A large road-rail excavator is working on the stone beside the track on our Loop Line. A supervisor is directing the work from a safe distance, and a third volunteer is watching from the foreground. The track is overgrown and disused.

Work getting underway on the Loop Line, with the Komatsu excavator clearing the trackside.

Secondly, there is a huge maintenance backlog to overcome. Our railway was effectively abandoned for a long time, and was subject to vandalism, trespass and general deterioration of our assets in the County Down weather. In some cases this was worse because things like locomotives are intended to move around, and water gathering in diesel locomotives, railcars and carriages has created a lot of work (see below)

Thirdly, unlike most tourist attractions and museums, we are entirely run and managed by volunteers. Everyone working in the Board, on track, locomotives, carriages and station improvements is a volunteer. Our wonderful part-time admin officer Kathryn has been on furlough since Spring 2020.

Being volunteer-run and volunteer-led, our already small workforce has been further reduced by people shielding from the virus, and those who wished to avoid contact with the public and other volunteers. Whilst the overall situation has improved massively, some volunteers are still staying away for their own safety, and we cannot compel them to return. We are literally doing more work with fewer people, and it’s a struggle.

Work completed during lockdown

It’s not all bad news. We have completed a lot of work during the lockdown period. This is some of the work that we have carried out:

  • A volunteer at work on the roof of an 80 class carriage. He is wearing a harness attached to a safety line in the workshop ceiling, and is painting the carriage roof grey with a roller.

    Robert at work on the roof of the 80 class driving trailer, applying a second layer of Noxyde paint.

    Rail joints have been adjusted and track inspected and overhauled all the way from Downpatrick to Inch Abbey. This includes dismantling, gap adjustment and oiling of every fishplate (track joiner) on the the rails, replacement of worn rails, repair or replacement of chairs and sleeper spacing improvements. The line is better now than the day it was laid!

  • Brand new speed limit and whistle signs have been installed all along the North Line
  • The Loop Line has had embankment repairs and track improvements, but more work is required to reconnect it to the North Line, and this is on hold while we focus our efforts elsewhere.
  • Ground frame installation, including complex point rodding installation, has made impressive progress
  • A painter in disposable overalls and mask is spray painting the dome end of the roof of the 80 class driving carriage. The carriage is sheeted off with plastic to protect the other paintwork. The new paint is a shiny maroon colour.

    Justin McConnell from NIR at work spraying the roof of the 80 class driving trailer.

    80 class restoration, maintenance and regular inspections continue. In particular, driving trailer 749 has been beautifully restored to be a 1970s time warp outside and inside.

  • Both our steam locos have had annual maintenance and boiler inspections, to get them ready for service.
  • The bay platform area had a major tidy up with discarded track materials and other rubbish dumped there removed, a vast improvement.
  • The giant mountain of old rotten sleepers and other rubbish dumped in the permanent way yard has been largely cleared, with useful components stored and scrap sleepers and other parts ready for disposal.
  • Inch Abbey car park. New white metal picket fencing is shown across the car park.

    New fencing in place at Inch Abbey car park.

    New fences and gates have been installed around the Downpatrick station site

  • We now have a brand new CCTV system and supporting wireless network around the site, complete with remote access and high definition evidential quality video.
  • New fences and gates have been installed at Inch Abbey station
  • Weed control work, including cutting back of trees (before nesting season, don’t panic), cutting vegetation and full weed spraying of both of our lines, including weed spraying to the very end of the South Line for the first time in many years.
  • We have ploughed through tonnes of paperwork to apply for grants and deal with awarding contracts for grant funded work.

The list of work above has been punishing, so thanks must go to the volunteers who have toiled so hard to make this happen. You may be surprised at how few working volunteers we have.

Remaining work

A group of volunteers pose with a new speed limit and whistle sign beside the track. The road-rail dumper truck is seen on the tracks.

A new combined 10mph + Whistle sign near Inch Abbey.

We’ve completed a huge amount of work during the past 12 months – but there is a lot more still to be completed.

Remaining work includes:

  • Repairs to diesel locomotives
  • Completion of the 80 class railcar restoration (mainly the roof on power car No. 69 which needs to be made watertight and repainted)
  • Annual inspection of locomotives and carriages, and any repairs carried out
  • Full, detailed inspection of all our permanent way and structures
  • A large yellow track machine with a weed spraying attachment drives slowly round a curve on our railway line. The track is overgrown with weeds and grass.

    The ballast regulator trundles round a curve near the ends of the South Line with weed sprayer deployed.

    Work is ongoing to repair our tamper so we can adjust the track to be more level and straight

  • Station cleaning and painting
  • Repairs and upgrades to pathways and fences
  • Inch Abbey platform is receiving major attention as the timber platform has not only aged but also vandalised, and needs to be repaired before use.
  • Improvements to level crossings at Downpatrick and the North Junction
  • General weeding and gardening
  • A new, modern, vandal-proof toilet at Inch Abbey (the horrid portaloo will be history!)
  • Groundskeeping works at Inch Abbey station to reclaim it from the jungle
  • A volunteer wearing face and eye protection operates a large petrol driving circular saw to cut a section off the end of a length of rail.

    Chris hard at work trimming the end of a length of rail to ensure the gap is correct.

    Crew training and related exams

  • Other Volunteer refreshers (station staff etc.)
  • Covid-safe measures to be put in place, such as hand sanitisers and screens (the equipment has been purchased already using grant funding)

There is more work than is listed above, but that shows you the major tasks we are trying to complete.

We need more help

Our small team of volunteers has been working flat out to get through all the jobs needed before we can reopen. In the middle of the heatwave, some came in before 6am to get track work completed before the heat became unbearable. At other times, the rain has poured through them while they toil.

The Bruff road-rail lorry is seen on the track near Inch Abbey. One of the rails in front of the truck has been removed to allow a new rail to be installed.

Track maintenance underway near Inch Abbey.

We need more help though. Even a few more people coming forward to volunteer would make a massive difference to us. Skilled painters, joiners, electricians, gardeners – we need you! If you don’t have a trade but have enthusiasm to help out, there is a place for you as well. The only current restrictions, on top of government health advice, are we are unable to train new drivers and firemen.

Please contact us if you think you can offer practical help. You can find details of how to contact us here.

Every pound helps!

Two road-rail excavators being used to clear rubble and old rails around tracks.

Rubble and scrap being removed in Downpatrick station.

Funding is also a major ongoing concern for us. We have lost 18 months of revenue, but careful financial management and grant funding success has kept us in a fairly healthy state. But grants are running out, and we don’t have ticket sales money coming in yet.

If you can make a donation, please consider doing so. To those who have already donated – thank you so much for your generosity. If you haven’t donated or you wish to donate again, then check out our donations page.

And finally…

While this all seems a little overwhelming and maybe depressing, we are actually very positive about our prospects. We have seen a close-knit, hard-working team of volunteers prove themselves to be heroes in this past year. The efforts put in have been impressive, be it toiling out on the track doing heavy manual labour, or toiling at a keyboard trying to keep the admin and finance on the straight and narrow.

We will be back just as soon as possible!