GSWR No. 90

At a glance:

Builder:London & North Western Railway (Crewe Works)
Build date:1875
Original company:Castleisland & Gortatlea Light Railway
Withdrawal date:1961
Final company:Córas Iompair Éireann
Arrived at DCDR:2007
Current status:Museum display
Current owner:DCDR

Perhaps Ireland’s most beloved steam loco, 90’s story begins in Crewe in 1875. Though designed in Inchicore by the Great Southern & Western Railway and probably assembled there as a kit, 90’s parts were fabricated by the London & North Western Railway for the engine’s original owner, the Castleisland & Gortatlea Light Railway. It entered service on the day that the Gortatlea line opened, on the 30th of August 1875. This manufacture at Crewe was technically illegal, thanks to England’s independent locomotive building companies taking out an injunction against the LNWR that year to prevent it from making engines for any company other than itself. Fortunately, 90 and its sisters 91 and 92 slipped through the net and went unnoticed by the authorities!

The trio were constructed as a very early type of ‘railmotor’, with small passenger carriages permanently attached. 90 had a passenger compartment that could seat six third class passengers, as well as a guard’s compartment which was accessable by a veranda on the back. The locos were only 23t 7cwt, and therefore there was little room on board – the 4.5-mile line’s cheaply-laid 40lb rail meant that locos travelling on it could only have a maximum axle load of 6.5t and were limited to 25mph. Originally, water was kept in a well tank between the frames, while coal was in small bunkers on either side of the boiler; this poor fuel capacity would impede their usefulness later on down the line following the Castleisland & Gortatlea’s 1879 absorption into the GSWR, and the subsequent relaying of their branch line to open it up to heavier locomotives. 90 subsequently worked on the Fermoy to Mitchelstown branch, still in railmotor form. The GSWR removed its carriage portion in 1915, and from then on it was used as a conventional locomotive.

90 made its way from Kerry to Cork, finding employment on the former Cork, Bandon & South Coast Railway after it and the GSWR were merged into the Great Southern Railway in 1924. It was assigned initially to what had been the CBSCR’s Timoleague & Courtmacsherry extension, and spent most of the next 36 years on their ‘new’ branch line.

However, 90 did sometimes stray from home, such as when it regularly made its way to the docks of Cork city to collect trains of newly imported Ford cars, or every Autumn when it could be found on sugarbeet trains all across the former CBSCR. 90’s surviving younger sister, No. 100, was scrapped after being replaced by CIÉ’s new ‘C’ class diesels in the mid 1950s, and 90 itself was withdrawn at Cork shed in October 1959.

This withdrawal was brief however, and 90 returned in October 1960 as the Cork station pilot. In that role, our diminutive branch engine brushed shoulders with the giants that operated in and out of one of Ireland’s busiest stations, such as the GSR 800s and the newly-built B121 diesels. This return to service was equally short though, and final withdrawal for 90 came in 1961, after 86 years of work. Thankfully CIÉ (who had taken ownership of 90 in 1945) recognised it was of historic interest and it was marked for preservation. Initially, it was moved to Fermoy on the Waterford – Mallow line for static display in the station’s defunct bay platform, but with the closure of the line in 1967, 90 was moved to Mallow. It resided there for 16 years on its own special plinth where the Waterford platform had once been. The elements hadn’t been kind during 90’s time on display – by the early 1980s, the engine was seen by many to be almost beyond restoration. In spite of this pessimism, in 1983 it was moved into the goods shed at Mallow for overhaul by the newly-formed Great Southern Railway Preservation Society. Ultimately the GSRPS was not able to carry out the necessary work to return her to steam, and she remained at Mallow for another two years until Westrail came on the scene.

Westrail (formally the West of Ireland Steam Railway Association) set up base in the goods yard at Tuam station in Co. Galway in 1985, and as the name suggested they needed a steam locomotive. No. 90 was selected by the group and moved to Tuam that year, where it would undergo an extensive restoration to operational condition. The boiler was overhauled at Kinsale which tided 90 over until 1992 when a new-build boiler arrived from the Severn Valley Railway in England. Its first steaming in preservation took place in August 1990 and in September it was cleared for mainline trains on the Irish Rail network. Under Westrail auspices, 90 ran trains from Tuam to Claremorris, Athenry and Galway, and in conjunction with the Cobh Heritage Centre even ran some specials as far as Cobh from her former stomping ground in Cork.

For a number of reasons, particularly due to a lack of Iarnród Éireann steam drivers in Connacht, Westrail’s mainline operations came to an end in 1993 along with 90’s adventures on the mainline. It and its diesel partner E428 were moved to Inchicore Works in 1996 for participation in the ‘Inchicore 150’ open day. The steam engine later returned to Tuam but the deterioration of the loco shed there meant that its safety was at serious risk of vandalism. As a result of these concerns, 90 was moved to Inchicore in December 2004 and was acquired by DCDR the following year – just in time, as the Tuam shed was destroyed in an arson attack a few months later.

After an extensive overhaul at Whitehead, 90 arrived at Downpatrick in 2007 and worked our line until a series of significant, but rectifiable, issues brought about her early withdrawal in 2010. It is currently on display in the Carriage Gallery – though not for much longer, as 90 is next in the queue for overhaul. It is hoped that 90 will return to passenger traffic in the mid-2020s once O&K No. 1 comes out of traffic.

At over 140 years old, 90 is Ireland’s oldest steam locomotive capable of operation – the only older one, GSWR 36 in Cork, is beyond steaming again. It has had a long history, spanning three centuries, extended stays in all four provinces of Ireland, and countless changes of ownership, but we know that it has now found a safe and permanent home in Downpatrick. We are indebted to the efforts of those who have went before us, most significantly Westrail, without whom 90 might not be around today. 90’s days on the Galway and Cobh lines may well be over, but in an age where even top-link express locomotives can struggle to find paths for steam railtours, today’s mainline is no place for our little Victorian marvel. Although 90 may have started its career in the Kingdom of Kerry, we think it’s more than content to reside today in the Kingdom of Mourne.