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?
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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!
An important letter from Robert Gardiner, DCDR Chairman, on the suspension of railway services during the COVID-19 epidemic
It is with deep regret that following the UK government’s advice on new social distancing measures required in order to reduce the transmission of coronavirus (COVID-19), that people should avoid gatherings and crowded places, such venues like ours during this pandemic, that we are suspending online sales for our planned Easter Eggspress.
The health and safety of our customers and our all-volunteer staff is of utmost importance to us, and we feel it inappropriate to be encouraging gatherings of people at this time. As many of our volunteers would be in an at risk category we also have a duty of care to them to avoid potential exposure. Indeed, as we expect volunteers to self-isolate, we would also find it very difficult to run train services at all during this period.
We will not be running any trains at Easter and are unlikely to run any events at the May Bank holidays either. We have also closed the museum to visitors and will not be able to accept any group visits for the foreseeable future.
It looks incredibly unlikely that we will be able to host any events until the current restrictions are lifted. This could have a huge financial impact on us, we are a self-funding not-for-profit charity, and you may have seen in the news that the Northern Ireland tourism industry has told the economy minister up to 3,000 tourism businesses might not survive without immediate help.
We hope that we can reschedule an “alternative Easter” later in the year. Whilst we will refund anyone who has purchased tickets for this event on request, given that this situation means we will have no income for most of the first part of 2020, I would plead with you to consider instead exchanging these for vouchers that we will honour for any future events of your choice.
We need your support and understanding in order to survive during this period.
Downpatrick and County Down Railway
Due to the ongoing concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the Downpatrick and County Down Railway have reluctantly taken the decision to postpone our Mother’s Day Afternoon Teas on Sunday 22nd March.
The health and safety of our customers and our all-volunteer staff is of utmost important to us, and we feel it inappropriate to be encouraging gatherings of people at this time, and as many of our volunteers would be in an at risk category we also have a duty of care to them to avoid potential exposure.
We will be contacting everyone who has booked already to give them the choice of:
- Convert your ticket to a voucher for a rescheduled Afternoon Tea event (details will be made available in due course)
- A full refund
We are very sorry if this causes any disappointment to those who have already booked, however we hope an afternoon tea voucher will still be an appropriate Mother’s Day gift, and these will still be available as gifts for anyone who was considering booking, but we hope you understand the reasons for this and we look forward to welcoming you later in the year.
Due to the ongoing public health concerns around the COVID-19 epidemic, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council has taken the decision to cancel the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Downpatrick.
DCDR management have reviewed this situation, and we have taken the reluctant decision to cancel our train operations on this date as well.
For clarity, that means the railway is CLOSED on Tuesday 17th March.
We apologise for any disappointment this has caused, and hope you understand our reasons for this decision. Aside from the health consideration, with the parade cancelled we would expect very few passengers to actually turn up for the trains.
We will be issuing refunds to anyone who has already booked tickets.
At this stage we have not made a decision regarding Mother’s Day Afternoon Teas or any subsequent events.
SEVENTY years ago this morning the first part of Northern Ireland’s railway network literally came to the end of the line, with the axe falling on a large part of the old Belfast and County Down Railway, marking the end of 100 years of railway transport in East Down.
On this day (15 January) in 1950, railway stations south of Comber fell quiet and an eerie silence descended upon mile after mile of what had once been a key transport corridor.
No longer would the rumble of trains and passenger-filled carriages pass through on their way to Castlewellan or Newcastle, stopping at Ballygowan, Saintfield, Ballynahinch junction, Crossgar, or Dundrum on the way, or perhaps branching off after Downpatrick for Ardglass.Later that year, on April 22, 1950, services from Belfast to Comber – with stops at Bloomfield, Neill’s Hill, Knock, Dundonald and on to Donaghadee also ceased.
Had the line survived to today, it would form a vital transport link between the commuter belt into the Northern Irish capital.
It seems incredible today to think that such a vital transport link could be easily discarded but in 1950 the ministers in the devolved Stormont Government took the view that railways were as obsolete as the stagecoach.
In a way, they were right that the lines were Edwardian relics – and the BCDR in particular still operated obsolete Victorian carriages – but investment since then in new technologies in track, signalling and rolling stock over those years have showed what we could have had throughout Northern Ireland.
But even then, in 1948 an express train from Comber to Belfast could get you into the old Queen’s Quay station near the Odyssey Arena in 15 minutes – despite the investment in the Glider and other public transport initiatives nothing has come close to replicating that speed and efficiency.
Up to the 1940s, the main railway network in Northern Ireland was operated by three major railway companies, the London Midland and Scottish Railway’s ‘Northern Counties’ lines, which operated out of York Road Station to Larne and Londonderry; the Great Northern Railway of Ireland, which operated out of Great Victoria Street Station to places like Dungannon, Armagh, as well as Dublin; and the Belfast and County Down Railway, based at Queen’s Quay Station.
In 1948, the Stormont government decided to nationalise the network and amalgamate the LMS and BCDR with the bus operator, the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board, to form the Ulster Transport Authority, a predecessor to Translink.
A tribunal was set up to consider how this could be best achieved and provide an integrated transport system.
Rail chiefs, who had been hoping for investment after the railways had proved so crucial to the war effort a few years earlier and that the buses would be barred from competing with the trains and instead provide a feeder service to stations, were devastated at the outcome.
The recommendation, accepted by Stormont, was that the entire Belfast and County Down Railway main line from Belfast to Newcastle, including the branches to Donaghadee, Ballynahinch and Ardglass, should be closed.
The only route to be saved was the Belfast to Bangor connection, which continues operating successfully to this day.
The attitude of Stormont was that it would be cheaper to move everything to the roads than to invest in railways that had been run down during the Second World War – people would use the buses instead. They developed huge road building schemes – most were never completed – but closed the railways first before these were even started. It seems incredible today.
Station Master James Taylor (left), Walter Paton, engine rosterer, fireman James Hill, driver Barney Malone on the last train to depart Downpatrick station to Ardglass in January 1950
The most puzzling element of the decision was the axing of the Belfast to Newtownards line, which served the east of the city – Dundonald, Knock and Comber areas in which the suburbs were developing and likely to provide increased commuter traffic had they been spared.
Indeed, there were more than enough new diesel trains ordered to operate both the Bangor and Newtownards lines – and evidence suggests that the Transport Tribunal expected Stormont to spare the Comber line as a compromise option and as late as 1953 before the tracks were lifted they were calling on the minister responsible to reverse the decision and trial these new diesel trains on this section of track – a call that fell on deaf ears.
The 1950 closures were the first steps in a plan which was to see the reduction of Northern Ireland’s railway network from 754 miles to 297 miles, a decrease of 61 per cent.
A decade later, the Great Northern Railway was divided between the UTA and its counterpart in the Republic, CIE, and further closures to lines to Armagh, Dungannon, Omagh and Strabane occurred.
These closures all occurred before the infamous Beeching Report into British Railways – the remit of which did not extend to Northern Ireland as this was a devolved matter.
Willie Watterson and James Magill, who were porters and ticket clerks at Newcastle and Tullymurry stations, recalled memories of the last train in an interview recorded for the BBC documentary ‘Raising Steam’ in 2007.
“The last train was a Sunday night. It was a cold winter night, 15th January 1950. There was twelve coaches, and two engines and two Guards. She was packed. Packed to the doors. So I lit all the lamps, and put detonators on the line to give her a send-off.
James added: “I think every station did the same thing, so when the train came in there was a salute of bangs. I felt terrible about it, terribly, terribly sad. I still felt it couldn’t happen.
“Still felt they’ll come back, they’ll run again. I couldn’t believe there’d be no more railways, after working on them so hard.”
Adam Hamilton, who was a fireman (the person who stoked the fire on the steam locomotives), also explained: “It broke my heart, because the railways were in my blood. I still hear the sound of the steam still running on a clear night puffing away”.
Today, the Downpatrick & County Down Railway keeps the memory alive through its reconstruction of two miles of the former main line as well as restored carriages rescued from their fate as hen houses.
As part of its commemorations of the BCDR‘s demise, it is keen to make contact with anyone who had any connection with the network, including former employees or their families, or people in possession of railway memorabilia such as photographs, tickets, timetables or even carriages.
One thing we would love for the museum is a BCDR uniform or tunic – so far we have been unable to track one down. Perhaps you have something in your loft?
The Downpatrick and County Down Railway can be contacted via email at email@example.com or message at www.facebook.com/downrail
And what of the future of the line? In November 2008 the section of the BCDR’s former main line from Holywood Arches to Comber was opened as the Comber Greenway, whilst other sections have been used for roads as well as the section around Downpatrick being used by the DCDR.
In the early 1990s Northern Ireland Railways prepared a feasibility study into reopening the line to Newtownards, but this was not taken further by the Direct Rule administration.
In May 2013, the Department for Regional Development published its Railway Investment Prioritisation Strategy, which promised feasibility studies into the reopening of closed railway routes to Armagh, Dungannon and Castledawson by 2030, but not including the Comber/Newtownards route.
However maybe, seventy years after the first railway closure in Northern Ireland, the new Minister for Infrastructure in the restored Stormont Government might see the first of those historic mistakes rectified?
Track lifting at Tullymurry station in 1953