At a glance:
Builder: Córas Iompair Éireann (Inchicore Works)
Build date: 1956
Original company: Coras Iompair Éireann
Withdrawal date: 2001
Final company: Iarnród Éireann
Arrived at DCDR: 2019
Current status: Under restoration
Current owner: DCDR

638a was built in Inchicore Works in 1956 to a design by O. V. S. Bullied as travelling post office (TPO) No. 2971. 30ft long across two rigid axles, 2971 and its fellow four-wheeled TPOs became known as ‘Tin Vans’ due to the use of aluminium panelling in their construction.

As built, 2971 would have had pigeon holes for sorting mail into on the move, but its short wheelbase prevented it from moving at any great speed. This was much to the delight of the postal sorters on board, who were under less pressure to work quickly! Their limited capacity meant they sometimes had to work in pairs on certain routes, and these inconveniences coupled with a general downturn in railway postal traffic meant they were withdrawn in the 1970s.

However this withdrawal would not last long and the tin vans returned, re-purposed either as luggage vehicles or, in our 2971’s case, for departmental use. Following its conversion in the mid-70s to a crew dormitory coach, 2971 took on its now-familiar number of 638a. The pigeon holes and mail bags were now gone, replaced by three bedrooms (one of which containing two bunk beds) and a small kitchen.

638a would be taken out to various work sites across the network to give permanent way gangs a place to sleep, eat and unwind during multi-day jobs. A short-term home-away-from-home, the bedrooms were all kitted out with wardrobes, under-bed storage and skylights, whilst the kitchen had a dining table, gas oven and a fridge.

The carriage was last used in 2001, which we were able to determine through extensive historical research (which involved reading the use-by date on a can of soft drink we found inside). After this, it lay in the sidings at Dublin Heuston until November 2018, having been acquired by us a few months prior. 638a was moved by road to Downpatrick in March of 2019.

Though quite unassuming in appearance, 638a is a worthy candidate for preservation, representing the last item of wooden-bodied stock to have been on Irish Rail’s books, as well as its last Irish-built vehicle. Its withdrawal represents the end of railway companies in Ireland using locally-constructed stock, a tradition which dates as far back as the 1830s.

Our plan for 638a is to install either a guard’s van, a generator, or wheelchair accommodation – or some combination of the three – for use on our passenger running set. Although assessment of the vehicle for these purposes is still ongoing, preliminary restoration work is taking place which has so far seen the entire carriage gutted and rotten interior panels removed.