Brexit Busting Dash to Rescue Heritage Railway Carriage

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Downpatrick & County Down Railway (D&CDR) has rushed to transport a heritage railway carriage over the Irish border amid the continued uncertainty over what will happen after Brexit on March 29.

Railway chairman Robert Gardiner said “Our latest acquisition of stock, CIÉ 638a, arrived at Downpatrick station from Inchicore Works at around 8am on Tuesday.

Railway Chairman Robert Gardiner shows off the delivery docket proving they didn’t smuggle the carriage! Photos: Downpatrick & County Down Railway

“This is the last Irish-built item of coaching stock on Irish Rail’s service books, marking the end of a tradition of mainline railways operating locally constructed carriages, which date back to the 1830s.”

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He continued: “However, because of the uncertainty over what border controls might be implemented we didn’t particularly like the idea of smuggling a railway carriage across the border! Certainly no-one has likely considered just what you need to do in order to import a veteran railway carriage into Northern Ireland.

“This is why we worked flat out to ensure we brought the vehicle to Downpatrick before the Brexit deadline.”

638A arriving on a low-loader

He added: “As with all our moves, a specialist railway vehicle haulier – Reid Freight Services – had to be brought in from England in order to do the moves, and for the driver, travelling from Holyhead, it would have meant crossing the UK-Ireland border four times, adding more potential delays and costs,” Mr Gardiner adds.

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Unique carriage No. 638a is the last survivor of a class that were colloquially known as a ‘tin van’ because the series were one of the first of their type to receive aluminium panelling.  It is hoped the vehicle can be used to improve wheelchair access on the D&CDR trains, as well as train crew facilities.

The carriage was built in 1956 in Inchicore, Dublin as a Travelling Post Office (No. 2971) to the design of renowned railway engineer OVS Bullied. They were 30ft long and had only four wheels on a rigid frame, compared to more modern, longer carriages.

Mr Gardiner said: “We are told by those old railway hands who remember them in service that the shorter wheelbase led to some ‘lively’ riding at high speeds – but the postal workers on board preferred slower engines anyway, as they didn’t have to work as fast to get their mail sorted on time!”

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Portrait shot of the carriage now at DCDR

They had limited capacity compared to other TPOs, but these smaller examples were still used extensively on mail routes across the CIÉ network until around the 1970s. Two or three postal workers would have travelled on the van sorting letters and parcels from across the country into their respective ‘pigeon-holes’ on the wall without windows for delivery. Mail bags were then dropped off at the appropriate stations, being forwarded to their final destination.

With the fall in postal traffic, No. 2971 was granted a new lease of life following withdrawal from revenue service, becoming permanent way departmental unit No. 638a, and was extensively used for Irish Rail track team accommodation – the evidence of which still litters the interior.

Mr Gardiner added: “It really is a pre-millennium time capsule – inside we found bunk-beds, old calendars and diaries from 1999, and even an old green-screen computer monitor. The carriage had laid out of use in Dublin’s Heuston station before being moved to Inchicore late last year.

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“With this unique piece of history now safely preserved at Downpatrick, we plan to put her to good use on our passenger trains for the public to enjoy.

“We want to convert 638a to wheelchair-accommodation coach with guard and maybe even electricity-generating capacity if possible.

“We have a lot of work to do, however, including clearing out 20 years’ worth of junk and weeds from the interior before the conversion can start.”

The carriage in service as No 2971

Mr Gardiner concluded: “Although she’s another project added to the list, we’re all breathing a sigh of relief now that she’s safely at Downpatrick after many years of uncertainty at Heuston.

“That’s another historic item of stock in our care for the enjoyment of future generations.”

If you are interested in joining the DCDR’s carriage team and lending a hand with this conversion, get in touch with the railway on 028 4461 5779 or online via www.downrail.co.uk or www.facebook.com/downrail

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Sam Hewitt

Let off some steam...