Back on Track Appeal

The COVID-19 restrictions this year have had a devastating impact on our operations and restoration work.  We need YOU to help us get back on track. 

Our railway is likely to remain closed for the remainder of 2020 due to the restrictions around COVID-19 and the specific challenges we face with our trains, infrastructure and operations. 

With no income for the rest of the year, we will face major challenges keeping the railway maintained and ensuring our vital work on our carriages, locomotives, track and stations can continue.

Our final attempts at securing COVID-19 support funding from Stormont have failed, so now we reluctantly must turn to our members and supporters to ask for help.

Read on, for details of the current situation at our railway, the challenges we face and our challenges around reopening. We appreciate every donation you can make, no matter how large or how small. 

We’d need to raise at least £40,000 this year just to keep the railway in a good condition and make some progress with essential projects.

Donate by PayPal

Use your PayPal account or credit/debit card to donate securely

You do not need a PayPal account to donate using this link. You will be asked to fill in a Gift Aid declaration during the donation process.

Donate by Text Message

Text RAIL to 70450 to donate £10

Text RAIL20 to 70450 to donate £20

or any other amount, e.g. RAIL15 to donate £15.

Texts cost the value of your donation plus one standard rate message. You will get an acknowledgement and be invited to fill in a Gift Aid declaration to increase the value of your donation. We will never contact you again after this by text.

If you are a UK taxpayer, please fill in the Gift Aid details when you are prompted. It only takes a minute and it increases the value of your donation by 25%, which also helps cover the PayPal fees and text message fees we have to pay.

Urgent appeal for donations – an open letter from our chairman

The Downpatrick and County Down Railway (DCDR) has supported the government’s call for a total lockdown of activities in the fight against Covid-19, meaning we haven’t opened our doors or carried a single passenger in 2020.

As a not-for-profit independent museum and charity our main funding stream is you – our loyal fare-paying passengers and supporters – and without you this means that we have had virtually no income at all this year so far, and it looks likely that we will be unable to operate any meaningful trains for 2020. This has been a massive hit on the railway’s finances and shall leave us struggling to keep the DCDR ready to reopen when it is safe to do so.

We have just under £40,000 of bills to pay this year in essential unavoidable costs alone to keep the business in mothballs. We have been paying these through our savings, which were built up over the last few years but were meant for long-awaited essential maintenance and critical repair and restoration work to safeguard the long term future of the DCDR.

We have watched as heritage railways across the UK and Ireland launched fundraising campaigns, but at a time when people were worried about basics such as paying their bills, buying groceries and had worries about their jobs and the health of their families, we felt that it just wasn’t right to ask for money for a steam railway, so we tried many other avenues of funding.

Since the NI Executive first announced support for businesses and charities, we have been hopeful of support, welcoming and investigating every single grant and funding source that has been announced, believing that our devolved government would quickly come to the support of Northern Ireland’s only operating heritage railway.

Our final hope for funding from Stormont was an application for £18,000 to the COVID-19 Charities Fund to cover the day-to-day essential costs we have already accrued to date. We learnt within days of the application being made that it had been rejected.

This was our last chance with the government schemes, as we did not qualify for funding under either the £10k or £25k business support schemes, designed specifically for the tourism and hospitality industry – as our rateable value was £1,800 over the £51k threshold. We were not eligible for the Micro Business Hardship Fund, the Sports and Clubs or voluntary and community sector hardship funds.

In short we have been rejected for support every time because we were too small, too large, or missing a financial threshold by only a few pounds sometimes. Sometimes we miss out because we have a small cash reserve for those vital projects, a reserve which is also made up of legacy donations from benefactors who have passed away, and wished their donations to go to landmark projects rather than pay day-to-day bills. The only public funding we receive is a modest “Service Level Agreement” grant from Newry, Mourne & Down District Council, but for 2020 even this has a question mark hanging over it.

We must thank those MLAs, councillors and public representatives, who have lobbied and argued our case, even mentioning us in correspondence with the NI Executive ministers as an example of an organisation that appears to have fallen through the cracks.

Many of us within the DCDR feel deep disappointment and frustration, as it feels like every door we try to open is either locked or closed on us. It also feels like, as a business, we are being penalised for good financial governance.

In recent years we have thankfully improved the railway’s financial position with a new management team and very careful control of activities and spending, as well as trying new events to try to bring new visitors and more income in – with 2019 having one of our best visitor numbers ever. We are fortunate to have no debt, and only one paid part-time employee (currently furloughed), as we have striven to live within our financial means. Without this careful management, frankly, DCDR would not have survived as long as it has and gone the way of so many heritage railway schemes in Ireland, and we would probably be facing closure at this stage instead of struggling with major maintenance and upgrades.

Even with no trains running, essential maintenance work is needed on our locomotives, carriages, track, bridges, platforms and buildings, some of which is urgent, to stop them falling into disrepair so that we are ready to reopen. Six-months of disuse has not helped. As you will see from the project costs, maintenance of a heritage railway is not cheap.

As you have maybe seen already, we have seen the unwelcome attention of trespassers and vandals, causing damage to our trains and property. The response of you, our friends and followers, to that has been very generous. But we need to improve our security, including improvements to CCTV and physical site security.

Without your support, none of these projects can be started, delaying our reopening day more and more.

Over the past few months we have watched as heritage railways across the water in GB launched fundraising campaigns. We held off hoping that we could gain financial support through government schemes with no avail.

Reluctantly, I am appealing to you all, our loyal friends and supporters, to donate whatever you can to a ‘fighting fund’ to help us address our essential priority spending and ensure that when we do eventually reopen, the railway is in a safe and presentable condition for you all to visit, if not better than it was.

We would need to raise at least £20,000 this year just to offset some of the lost income and start to address the most urgent issues starting to build up.

Please consider giving whatever you can to support Ireland’s only independent, mainline heritage railway – keep us a success story – we will survive these difficult times.

Thank you to all of you for your support.

Robert Gardiner
DCDR Chairman

Here are some of the expenses we face in the near future.

This gives you an idea of the expenses involved in operating a heritage railway. Most of these projects would have been underway by now, using income from our running days and special events in 2020 – but it looks as if we will have no income at all this year.

Security & fencing - up to £38k needed for fencing, gates and CCTV

We need to improve our CCTV and our fencing to protect our trains and buildings from further attack from vandals and thieves.

Weed control - up to £1,000 for chemicals and repairs to the sprayers

Weeds are taking over the network during closure, we need to act soon to control this.

Bridge Inspections - at least £4500

We need regular inspections of all our bridges by specialist contractors to ensure they are safe, especially after a long period out of use.

Bridge repairs - £78k

Bridge repairs are costly, and some of our bridges are going to need major attention in the coming years.

Carriage 1097 - at least £10k

This carriage has compartments which would be perfect for social distancing, and also for visitors with ASD who appreciate their own personal space.

Inch Abbey Platform - £18k of immediate work needed

Inch Abbey platform needs £18k of work this year, and longer term we have planned a redevelopment which could cost up to £200k.

Loop Line - £2000 for materials

This will allow us to turn the locos and carriages and prevent uneven wear on the wheels. It will also allow us to provide different and longer journeys.

Carriage 3223 - at least £75k

Carriage 3223 urgently needs overhaul. This could include rebuilding the interior to provide compartments for privacy and social distancing.

Reopening the railway

Crowds at our railway in 2019

Busy days like this during special events are when we make money to plough back into our railway for repairs and renewals. This just isn’t possible with our current setup and reduced passenger numbers due to social distancing.

Get our trains back on track

We desperately want to get our steam trains running again – but it has to be safe to do so, and we have a lot of expensive work to carry out to make this possible.

Get the 80 class into service

The 80 class train could be adapted easily to provide safer travel for family groups. It only requires a driver in the cab, so social distancing for our volunteers is possible. 

Many of you will no doubt be seeing updates from other heritage railways in England with provisional opening dates and, as traditionally our “Summer Steam Season” starts this weekend, you will no doubt be wondering when we will announce ours.

Whilst the Northern Ireland Executive has announced a relaxation in the lockdown, we cannot reopen until we are happy that we can operate safely for both our volunteers and you the public and in line with government regulations.

Even though we operate trains, it is probably a better comparison to think of us in the vein of theatres and cinemas than as a public transport provider, where our visitors are enjoying an experience sat in close proximity to each other.

Social distancing, even if reduced to 1m, in a heritage railway is very difficult and we would have to reduce passenger numbers to only a few families per train. This means every train would run at a loss, so we cannot consider this financially viable, but as well as this we need to make sure that your visitor experience is an enjoyable one free from worry.

The Office of Rail and Road has provided good advice to the heritage railway sector on re-opening safely, but it really isn’t as simple as just turning up and starting the locos again, and DCDR faces specific challenges that make this very difficult.

Temperature checks at the doors, online-only booking, hand sanitising stations, socially-distanced seating and additional cleaning are some of the measures being talked about, as well as the likely compulsory use of face-masks on board train services. All this would be very difficult for an organisation of our size with a volunteer workforce to implement. Our volunteers’ competencies also need to be reassessed after such a long period of time to ensure they are still qualified to undertake their roles.

The Arts Council of NI is also currently undertaking research to create guidance for venues on how to reopen. But the Council has warned it could be well into the autumn before venues can reopen, and a recent survey by them revealed that only 18% of visitors would feel comfortable and safe to return to such venues even if the public guidance said it was safe to do so whilst social distancing measures remain in place.

We do not currently see any way to resume train operations at the railway this year in a way that will be safe and at the same time not compounding the financial situation by operating trains at a loss.

Donate by PayPal

Use your PayPal account or credit/debit card to donate securely

You do not need a PayPal account to donate using this link. You will be asked to fill in a Gift Aid declaration during the donation process.

Donate by Text Message

Text RAIL to 70450 to donate £10

Text RAIL20 to 70450 to donate £20

or any other amount, e.g. RAIL15 to donate £15.

Texts cost the value of your donation plus one standard rate message. You will get an acknowledgement and be invited to fill in a Gift Aid declaration to increase the value of your donation. We will never contact you again after this by text.

If you are a UK taxpayer, please fill in the Gift Aid details when you are prompted. It only takes a minute and it increases the value of your donation by 25%, which also helps cover the PayPal fees and text message fees we have to pay.

We’d prefer it if you could donate online or by text message, as it reduces the need for our volunteers to go on-site, or visit banks.

If you really can’t donate electronically, then we’re still happy to accept cheques.

Please make cheques payable to Downpatrick & County Down Railway and send them to the address below. Please include a covering letter including your name and address and include a Gift Aid Form if you are a UK taxpayer to increase the value of your donation.

Back on Track
Downpatrick & County Down Railway
Market Street
DOWNPATRICK
County Down
BT30 6LZ