The Downpatrick & County Down Railway is a heritage railway in County Down, Northern Ireland. The project is based at Downpatrick, on part of the former route of the Belfast & County Down Railway. The railway, which has a triangular layout, connects two local tourist attractions, Inch Abbey to the north, and a locally famous Viking site ('King Magnus' Grave') to the south, and will eventually reach an 18th-century corn mill to the south near Ballydugan. It is the only operational Irish standard gauge (5' 3") heritage railway in the whole of Ireland. Local architect Gerry Cochrane M.B.E. was inspired to start the scheme after taking a walk along the route of the line, and by 1982 had gained support to rebuild part of the line as a heritage steam railway from the local council. Lord Dunleath, whose father had purchased the railway trackbed adjacent to his estate after the closure of the BCDR in Downpatrick, gave the newly formed society a package of land on which to build the line and station for a peppercorn rent. This was on the approaches to the old Downpatrick station, which had been demolished in the 1970s. Work started on rebuilding the railway in 1985, with public trains finally running in the town again in December 1987.
Approximately 5 km (3 miles) of 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in) Irish standard gauge track are open as of 2016, along which a steam locomotive, O & K No. 1, and 1950s-60s era diesel locomotives are run, drawing preserved rolling stock. Passenger trains are usually operated with brake/generator standard class coach 3223, which was built in 1954 by Córas Iompair Éierann, and brake/standard class coach 728, which was built in 1951 by the Ulster Transport Authority. Stock is added to or withdrawn from the 'running set' as maintenance allows. Older carriages built by the Great Southern and Western Railway and Belfast and County Down Railway were operated on the line until they were moved elsewhere on site for display or maintenance.
The railway also operates one of the prototype BR-Leyland Railbuses, RB3, which was modified in the early 1980s to run on Irish metals and was used for a period by Northern Ireland Railways. The railway has also been donated several items of stock by Irish Rail, such as Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway Railcar B, built in 1947. This railcar is in poor condition and it will be some time before the DCDR can return it to operational condition. A second O & K steam locomotive is also under restoration. 1875-built 0-6-0 tank engine, GSWR No.90, which was delivered to Downpatrick in October 2007 after overhaul at the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland's workshops in Whitehead, Co Antrim, is Ireland's oldest operational steam engine. A mainline diesel locomotive, CIÉ A class No.A39, was moved to the railway in November 2009. This locomotive is on loan from the Irish Traction Group. ITG-owned 141 class locomotive No.146 joined the railway's fleet in late November 2010.
In 2009, the Carriage Gallery was completed, which has created an interactive museum in which the public can enjoy the railway's collection of carriages in varying states for repair from immaculately restored to ex-hen house condition. The Carriage Gallery was officially opened by the Earl Of Wessex in 2014. The railway also aims to have an at least partially operational mechanical signalling system, using the preserved King's Bog and Bundoran Junction signal cabins along with multiple semaphores that are on the site. Related to this is the Double Track Project, which will allow simultaneous operation on the North and South lines.
The railways of Ireland were born in the “Railway Mania” of the 1830s and 1840s, with the first railway opening between Dublin and Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), a distance of six miles, in 1834, only a decade later than that of Great Britain. The contractor was William Dargan, now known as the founder of railways in Ireland due to his participation in many of the main routes. Fortunately this route is still open to the public, and is part of Dublin’s DART system. By its peak in 1920, Ireland as a whole had 3,400 route miles of railway. The current status is less than half that amount, with a large unserviced area around the border area between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
One question that is frequently asked is why Ireland has a gauge (distance between the rails) of 5ft 3in (1600 mm) instead of the most common ‘standard’ gauge, 4ft 8½ inches, especially as all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom at that time. Indeed, the Dublin & Kingstown Railway was initially built to George Stephenson’s gauge of 4ft 8½ inches, but circumstances would soon change, leading to Ireland’s distinctive gauge. The problem arose when the Ulster Railway began to construct its line between Belfast and Armagh. They chose the gauge of 6ft 2in, and the proposers behind the planned Dublin and Drogheda Railway were going to build their line to a gauge of 5’2″. Immediately this caused political wranglings, as the different gauges between Ireland’s three railway would lead to the problems faced by railways across the water in Great Britain – where trains from one railway could not run on another.
At this point, the Board of Trade stepped in and asked Major-General Pasley of the Royal Engineers to examine the situation. After ruling out Brunel’s 7ft broad-gauge he asked the opinion of the Stephensons their opinion, who (while committed to 4ft 8½ in GB) suggested a compromise gauge for Ireland between 5ft 0in and 5ft 6in. It was at this point that Major-General Pasley discovered that the exact average between all three gauges was 5ft 3in, and so made his recommendation that this should be the standard gauge throughout Ireland, which was readily accepted by the Board of Trade. A brilliant example of a political compromise! Naturally, the Dublin and Drogheda enthusiastically accepted the ruling (only being one inch out), while the other two parties were probably not so pleased… The gauge of the Ulster Railway was altered about 1846, and that of the Dublin and Kingstown Railway in 1857, the alteration costing the latter company £38,000. This unusual gauge is otherwise found only in the Australian states of Victoria, southern New South Wales (as part of Victoria’s rail network) and South Australia (where it was introduced by the Irish railway engineer F.W. Shields), and in Brazil.
Every year, the Downpatrick and County Down Railway operates the following trains: Saint Patrick's Day Specials, which are held on Saint Patrick's Day and operate to Inch Abbey; Easter Specials, which take place over a couple of days around the Easter Period, and operate to Inch Abbey; May Day Specials, which take place on May Day and operate to Inch Abbey; Summer Specials, which take place every weekend during summer and operate to Inch Abbey; Halloween Specials, which take place on the weekend prior to, and on, Halloween night, and operate to Magnus' Grave; Santa Specials, which take place on the weekends prior to Christmas, and operate to the Loop Platform; Mince Pie Specials, which take place on the last weekend of the year, and operate to Magnus' Grave or Inch Abbey - these are usually diesel-hauled. The Travelling Post Office carriage acts as the Grotto Carriage for Halloween and Christmas. Bank Holidays, private charters and film contracts make for extra trains throughout the year too.
The museum upstairs in the station building at Downpatrick houses a fascinating collection of relics telling the story of Irish Railways in general, and also a unique collection of Belfast & County Down Railway artefacts. The museum display will take you through the history of railways in County Down – from the railway’s first sod being cut to closure of the BCDR system in 1950. They also have an interesting collection of railway artefacts connected with the BCDR including signals and signalling equipment and diagrams, track and permanent way equipment, permanent way tools, old-style Edmondson tickets and original railway signs and posters.
They have a unique collection of old carriages and locomotives in the Carriage Gallery building. They have everything from beautifully restored carriages to unrestored examples that need a LOT of work to get them running again. You can also play games, watch films, and the kids can dress up in period costume or railway uniform. The Carriage Gallery is where you can get up close with their collection of historic railway vehicles. They have everything from beautifully restored old-style carriages to unrestored examples just as they found them in fields and farmyards. You can marvel at traction as varied as an 1875-built steam locomotive to a 1960s Irish Rail diesel, to a 1980s British Rail railbus. Some of the carriages are open for you to explore, and get a sense of what travel was like years ago. As you sit in a third class compartment, compare it to what you travel in on the national network today! They have a number of interpretive displays on the wall, along with some videos and posters. You can see a model railway showing what the B&CDR station at Ballynahinch Junction was like, and kids can dress up in period costumes and railway uniforms to get their photos taken.
The ruins of the ancient Cistercian Abbey can be reached with an easy five minute stroll from their Inch Abbey station. You can explore the ruins, take in the views, and in the summer it’s a lovely spot for a picnic. It was also used as a location for Game of Thrones! See where Robb Stark’s camp was located in season one – it’s where he was proclaimed the King of the North. On certain dates in the summer, a living history monk will be on-site to provide guided tours of the Abbey.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to travel on the footplate of a steam locomotive, or even in the cab of a main line diesel locomotive? If so, wonder no more, you can do just that at a running day at their railway. A £20 per person supplement will get you a trip from Downpatrick to Inch Abbey and return, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the steam engine. At times when we run a diesel service, you can imagine yourself in the cab of a locomotive on a distant branch line in rural Ireland in the 1960s or 70s. Cab rides are subject to availability – places are limited, and sometimes we may have to refuse them for operational reasons. For example, if we are training a new fireman or driver. To take part in a footplate ride, you need to: •Be reasonably fit and able to climb into and out of a cab. •Wear sensible footwear (sandals are not sensible! •Sign an indemnity form before you are permitted to travel. •Comply with any request from the footplate crew, they are responsible for your safety and that of everyone on the train. Footplate passes are only available on application from the ticket office on the day of travel.
The model railway room can be found at the end of the main station building at Downpatrick, beside the path to the Carriage Gallery. Children love to watch Thomas & Friends, as well as some more traditional model locomotives, racing round the track, and for a small donation your kids can have a go at the controls as well. You can even drive model versions of some of the diesel locomotives you can see outside in the yard, and take a train to the model version of Inch Abbey down the branchline!
A Family Discount is available. There are Baby Changing facilities. Parking is available. Credit/Debit Cards Accepted. Euro Accepted. Picnic Area. Guided Tours are available. There are Toilets, a Gift Shop and a Tea-room/Cafe onsite. Most of the site is wheelchair accessible. Wheelchairs can be accommodated on the trains. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : The Railway Station, Market Street, Downpatrick, County Down BT30 6LZ
Transport: Lisburn (NI Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 15, 215, 515 stop near by.
Opening Times : Museum is open Wednesdays, for trains click here.
Tickets : Prices vary, click here for details
Tel: 028 44615779