At a glance:
Builder: British Rail Engineering Ltd. (Litchurch Lane Works, Derby)
Build date: 1978
Original company: Northern Ireland Railways
Withdrawal date: 2017
Final company: Northern Ireland Railways
Arrived at DCDR: 2018
Current status: Under restoration
Current owner: DCDR

Together, power car (PC) 69 and driving trailer (DT) 749 make up one of the two 80 Class sets at DCDR. They were both built in 1978 by BREL at their Litchurch Lane works in Derby. They were part of the second batch of 80 Class railcars built for NIR, coasting off the success of the first batch in 1975.

Arrival of the 80 Class allowed NIR to start withdrawing the ageing fleet of diesel railcars which they had inherited from the UTA and its predecessors, some of which had been in service from the 1950s. At a time when large-scale rail closures were still fresh in the minds of many in Northern Ireland, the arrival of the 80s represented a long-overdue investment in the railway system. Comfortable, reliable and simple, many today credit the 80 Class with saving NIR altogether.

69 houses the mighty English Electric 560hp 4SRKT engine (which gives the railcar its distinctive ‘thump’), as well as a guard’s van, wheelchair accommodation and seating for 42 passengers. 749 meanwhile seats 81 and has a small driving cab offset to the left of the carriage to maintain a gangway connection for passengers should it be coupled to another set.

Unlike NIR’s railcars today, the 80s didn’t run in fixed sets and over their lives worked in all combinations. Driving trailers weren’t reserved for any particular power car and so, though 69 and 749 are happily married at Downpatrick today, in their working lives they could be seen with any vehicle in combinations up to nine vehicles with any mix of power cars, intermediate carriages and driving trailers.

69’s first claim to fame is that it was one of three power cars loaned to Irish Rail in 1987 to replace Irish Rail’s AEC railcars on Bray, Cobh and Maynooth services. During this time it wore IR logos with her NIR livery, and for a while it looked as if Irish Rail might outright purchase it! 69 returned to NIR in November 1990 however, but its forays down south were far from over.

In 1995, 69 had the honour of working the final ‘Peace Train’ between Dublin and Belfast. Seven Peace Trains had ran between 1989 and 1995 in protest of terrorist activities disrupting railway services.

In 1996, the pair were renumbered as 8069 and 8749 to avoid conflict on Translink’s computer systems with bus fleet numbers, but the new numbers were never really used outside NIR officialdom. However, with 69 now at Downpatrick we wonder if the renumbering wasn’t such a bad idea, as it would prevent confusion with our identically-numbered GSWR six-wheeler!

As part of NIR’s modernisation programme, which also saw the introduction of the CAF class 3000s, the remaining 80 class fleet was refurbished in 2008 – the power cars, including 69, in Burton-under-Needwood in England, and the driving trailers, including 749, in York Road. The power cars arrived back in Northern Ireland in September 2009, but after just six days 69 was withdrawn from passenger service and placed into storage. 749 was more fortunate, lasting until the end as part of the final 80 Class set. 749 worked the 80 Class farewell railtour and the class’s last service train in September 2011.

Though there were no longer any 80s in passenger service, four vehicles continued to operate as the sandite train every Autumn. 69 became a part of the sandite train in 2012, whilst 749 was kept as a spare for it in York Road. It was during its time on the sandite train that 69 took on a departmental yellow livery to help distinguish the sandite vehicles from passenger trains to commuters. However during the repaint the numbers were mistakenly applied the wrong way around and 69 was briefly No. 96! The sandite train was finally replaced in 2017 by a modern multi-purpose vehicle, and so 69 was withdrawn after its last mainline run in November 2017.

This meant it was finally time for an 80 Class to make its way to Downpatrick. This was a process that had actually started in 2006, when the first wave of withdrawals took place, but was deferred as it was decided that it would be better to wait for the withdrawal of the sets that were going to be staying on following refurbishment.

69 and 749 had long been earmarked for preservation, and this finally kicked off in April 2018 when they were moved into the paint shops at York Road to be re-liveried. The pair were painted into their first livery; NIR’s distinctive maroon and blue. Delivery to Downpatrick took place in May 2018, and soon after arrival 69 was started for the first time in preservation. Gauging trials took place in June 2018, and driver training in 2019, filling the drumlin countryside with the thump-y music of an 80.

749, meanwhile, is undergoing an extensive internal overhaul which has seen, among other things, the interior walls stripped back from cream vinyl to as-delivered teak Formica. When the restoration is complete, the set is intended to be used on public running days to offer a second train, as well as operate on quieter days when steam wouldn’t be economic.