Visitine the Whitehead railway Museum

Visiting the Whitehead Railway Museum, June 13th 2019

Archetypon Organizer
  • Stacks Image 190583

Coleraine Probus at Whitehead

Stacks Image 190614
Photo: Probus Club Vice President Derick Woods thanks Whitehead Museum Guide John Richards, with John McKegney, club member AND Railway Preservation Society Chairman, and some of the club members and guests at the end of a fascinating and very enjoyable visit.

Coleraine Probus members know only too well, that there are very few advantages of reaching 'a certain age' and retiring from work - the loss of income and the aches and pains that can't just be shrugged off are but two of the inevitable consequences. However, the wonderful and FREE, Travel Card is surely the one big bonus of getting older. And so, a group of club members and guests met at Coleraine Station, Travel Cards in hand, and headed out to Whitehead and the Railway Museum there.

The members were met by John Richards, one of the many volunteers that keep the museum open, and who acted as our very knowledgeable and entertaining guide for the duration of our visit. One of the first things we learnt from John was that Whitehead wasn't like many other museums, it is a heavy engineering works, covering several acres of workshops, engine sheds and multiple lines of rail track (at 5ft 3inch gauge). There is also an excellent 'Edwardian Tea Rooms' and a smallish (in comparison), very comprehensive display area. This gives the history of railways in Northern Ireland, the people that built the railways, and models of just how the traditional steam train works.
Stacks Image 190699

John Richards gives us a briefing before we start our tour.
'Click' on the headings below for more detailed information…

In the beginning (part 1)
The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (that run the museum) was formed in 1964 to preserve Irish steam locomotives, carriages and rolling stock and to operate them on the Irish railway network for everyone to see, appreciate, enjoy and travel on. The Society currently has around 1,000 members from all across the world and depends on its volunteers to keep its stock of steam trains operational.
For a look at some of the Museum trains in action, just 'Click' the RPSI logo below:


The Signal Box
John took us to our first port of call, the original signal box with its array of 13 hand leavers. These long and fairly tough to pull levers were vital in alerting train drivers to possible dangers, or assuring them the rail ahead was clear. Almost unbelievably, the leavers could be connected to manually operate a signal up to one mile from the signal box!
For a look inside the Signal Box, just 'Click' on the Whitehead Poster below:


Into the Workshops

A cut-away model of 'How a Steep Engine Works'

After the wonders of the signal box, and the treasures of the museum, John took our group to look over the workshops where carriages were restored to their former glory, steam engines rebuilt, rolling stock and engines refurbished, and also they could 'have their tyres changed' - and no, John wasn't joking. The huge steel wheels on the trains are not great chunks of cast metal machined to a single metal wheel, they have an outer band of carefully machined steel that is 'sweated' on to the wheel hub. This wears down over their years of service and can then be replaced by the very skilled engineers and volunteers at Whitehead - the only place in all of Ireland that has the skills and equipment to do this.
For a look around the Whitehead Workshops, just 'Click' the little Poster below:


The Edwardian Tea Rooms
Following a tour of the rail yard itself, our visit culminated in fine style as we talked through the highlights of the day while enjoying a late lunch in the excellent 'Edwardian Tea Rooms' - very 'Brief Encounter' / Age of Steam style…

No, not Probus members, this is a RPS photo (we forgot to take one, too busy eating!)

…and just right to round the day off before heading back to Coleraine on our (not quite so romantic) 'Class 4000 Diesel Multiple Unit' train, thanks to Translink and our much valued 'Travel Pass'.
For a final look around the Whitehead rail yard, 'Click on the image of the 'Class 4000' below:


Announcement of the inaugural meeting. (Belfast Newsletter 22/9/1964)
Of the original three, Derek Young and Denis Grimshaw are still active RPSI members - Michael Shannon left Belfast to live in England shortly after the RPSI was formed. Of the original committee, Sullivan Boomer sadly passed away in 2015, John Harcourt is a regular supporter, the late Laurence Liddle maintained contact in Five Foot Three into his nineties from Australia, and Craig Robb still took an occasional photograph before his untimely death.

Having acquired our first locomotive in 1965, the RPSI moved into our Whitehead, Co. Antrim, headquarters in 1966. It is here that the Society's major locomotive and carriage refurbishment takes place. We have erected specialist buildings and acquired a lot of specialist equipment including a travelling overhead crane (of 1897 vintage) and a full forge/smithy. This is all necessary to ensure that our maintenance continues to the very highest quality levels.

Lord O'Neill addresses the inaugural meeting of the RPSI which was held in
the Presbyterian Hostel, Belfast, on 30th September 1964

Left to right front row: John White (first Treasurer), Sullivan Boomer, Derek Young (partly obscured by his Lordship). Between John and Sullivan is Leslie McAllister and peeping over the shoulder of the guy to the right of Leslie is Robin Morton. Directly over Sullivan's head is John Richardson. Behind Derek is Peter Scott, and behind Peter is Eric Ferguson. John Harcourt (first Chairman) is seated in the foreground.

Ongoing Society history is recorded in the various issues of Five Foot Three, the RPSI's journal.

In the beginning, (part 2) A History of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland

The 131, still in active service for the Whitehead museum special trips on the network.

In the early 1960s the future of the railways did not seem to be particularly threatened. The swingeing closures of 1956/7 on the former GNR seemed to have consolidated the network, and it appeared that steam traction would only gradually disappear. The Benson Report was commissioned in Northern Ireland in 1963, a little after the McKinsey Report in the Republic. The major part of both these reports was implemented resulting in a further set of closures - in the south the West Cork lines, the bulk of the DSER inland routes and many minor branches fell to the axe, while in the north the GNR "Derry Road" finally succumbed.

However, it looked as though the railways would escape any further closures, and the investments in new locomotives, railcars and coaches seemed to suggest that the future for the surviving lines was secure. It was in such a climate that the following events unfolded.

Shortly after a rail-tour to Portrush, organised by the Inst (Royal Belfast Academical Institution) Railway Society in September 1963, an ad hoc organisation was set up to run steam rail-tours in the last days of steam. This was known as the "Northern Ireland Railway Societies Joint Committee", and was empowered by the committees of the Irish Railway Record Society (Belfast Area), the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst) Railway Society, the Northern Ireland Road and Rail Development Association, and the Friends of the Belfast Transport Museum to organise and run rail-tours on their behalf, as none of these societies felt that they had enough financial resources or a large enough membership base to do so on their own.

Derek Young (NIRRDA), Michael Shannon (FBTM), Denis Grimshaw (as secretary), Sullivan Boomer (RBAIRS), John McGuigan (IRRS) and Craig Robb were the members of the NIRSJC.

Incidentally, the NIRSJC had absolutely no constitution, official or legal status whatsoever - but people didn't worry about things like that in those days!

A successful rail-tour was operated from Belfast to Loughrea and back on 4th April 1964, with VS No.207 from Belfast to Dublin and back, although the Dublin-Loughrea section was operated by a diesel railcar set instead of steam traction as originally intended - not because CIÉ would not agree to steam, but purely on grounds of cost.

The major factor which had killed off the idea of using one or two of CIÉ's remaining J15s (or GNR(I) Qs No.131 or No.132, at least one of which was considered to be repairable) from Dublin to Loughrea and back was CIÉ's estimated locomotive repair costs.

The only market for rail-tours in the 1960s was considered to be the railway enthusiast market - no Portrush Flyers, Santa Trains or other general public ventures were considered viable - really because the general public still thought of steam trains as normal everyday transport.

The virtual end of steam operations on CIÉ, and the apparently rapidly approaching demise of steam on the UTA (before the Magheramorne Spoil Contract deferred the evil day!), together with the experience of the Loughrea tour were instrumental in turning the thoughts of three of the Joint Committee's members to establishing a preservation society which would own the locomotives, keep them in traffic, and could overhaul and maintain them largely with volunteer labour.

The examples of the Bluebell and Keighley & Worth Valley Railways in Britain were noted, but widespread main line operations were always considered vital, rather than an attempt to purchase and operate a branch line or other section of closed railway.

The other fundamental decision, based on market potential for rail-tour passengers, availability of representative locomotives and rolling-stock from all former Irish railways and a larger variety of routes for special trains, together with the potential for a larger membership base, and not from any political considerations, was to establish the new society on an all-Ireland basis. Even the very limited experience of the Loughrea tour had indicated that better access to the potential rail-tour market in the Dublin area could have helped the venture.

So it was that following the Loughrea rail-tour in April 1964 Derek Young, Michael Shannon and Denis Grimshaw met in York Road waiting room (quite a spacious and comfortable place in those days) on several occasions. And it was there, in the early summer of 1964, that the decision to set up the RPSI (and the choice of name) was made.

The remaining NIRSJC members (Sullivan Boomer and John McGuigan) and a number of other prominent members of the various railway societies were then roped in, to help to establish the new organisation, and gain acceptance and credibility from the railways (UTA and CIÉ) and other external bodies. It is always dangerous to name individuals, as someone will feel left out, but Laurence Liddle, John Harcourt, Lord O'Neill, Craig Robb, Harry Frazer and Drew Donaldson, were all involved.

An inaugural meeting of the "Railway Preservation Society of Ireland" was held in Belfast on 30th September 1964 - and the rest, as they say, is history. On that occasion, Denis Grimshaw was elected as Secretary - the first of two spells in the post.

Three of the main personalities that built-up the railways to it's hay-days of the late 18th century

*Note: If the slides are moving to fast for you, hover the ‘mouse pointer’ over the photo, and that stops the automatic change.