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The RPSI, How It All Began ...
(Updated 21/7/2016)

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 railtour 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 railtours 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 railtours 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 railtour 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 railtours 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 railtour 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 railtour market in the Dublin area could have helped the venture.

So it was that following the Loughrea railtour 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.

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.

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.

Subsequent Society history is recorded in the various issues of Five Foot Three.

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.

... And Subsequently


1964 Society is formed at meeting in Belfast (30th September).
1965 First steam railtour operates: Belfast York Road - Portrush - Portadown - Belfast Great Victoria Street.
1966 Society sets up home at Whitehead Excursion Station on Belfast - Larne line.
1967 "Dalriada" Railtour is the first to use a locomotive (No.186) owned by the Society.
"Cuchulainn" Railtour, Belfast-Dundalk & return, is the first venture on to CIÉ metals.
1968 "St. Ciaran" Railtour is first two-day event, with overnight in Athlone.
1969 First Open Day is held at Whitehead, with 3 locomotives in steam.
1970 NIR's last year to use steam locomotives; Society launches appeal to buy No.4.
1971 Work starts on locomotive shed extension at Whitehead.
No.4 arrives with the Society.
1972 No.186 hauls the "North Kerry" Railtour, Limerick - Tralee & return.
1973 First season of "Portrush Flyer" trains is operated.
1974 First Schools' Day is held at Whitehead.
1975 The "Burma Road" Railtour traverses the Claremorris - Sligo line.
Society gains recognition as a charity.
1976 No.4 becomes first steam locomotive to pass through the new Belfast Central Station.
Enterprise Ulster commences a huge work programme at Whitehead, including excavations to create new siding space and rebuilding the platform.
1977 Mullingar is established as a base for restoration of locomotive No.184.
No.461 also comes into RPSI care.
1978 No.184 & No.186 star in the film "The First Great Train Robbery". Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Leslie-Anne Down also appear!
1979 Whitehead shed extension finally gets a roof.
RPSI sales van takes to the road.
1980 No.171 hauls first "Steam Enterprise" train, Belfast - Dublin & return, one week late due to a bomb on the line.
1981 "Ben Bulben" Railtour traverses Mullingar - Sligo line, and the Society completes its coverage of every railway line still open in Ireland.
1982 Locomotive wheel lathe from Belfast York Road is installed at Whitehead.
1983 Society receives the Association of Railway Preservation Societies Annual Award for: "Operation during 1983 - and for many years past - of steam excursions".
No.184 stars in the TV series "The Irish R.M."; Peter Bowles and Bryan Murray also appear!
1984 No.4 hauls ballast trains for NIR during running-in after an overhaul.
1985 No.85 "Merlin", on loan from the UFTM, enters service after an overhaul sponsored by the late Lord Dunleath.
The Whitehead Railway Project (a youth training scheme run by NIACRO) completes the restoration of former LMS NCC coach 68.
1986 Society purchases nine coaches from CIÉ to establish a train based in the Republic.
Enterprise Ulster installs the former Ballymena turntable in Coleraine.
1987 On 11th August, NIR charters Society train hauled by No.85 for re-enactment of first "Enterprise Express" exactly 40 years earlier.
1988 Series of Dublin-based public one day steam trips is run to celebrate the Dublin Millennium.
1989 Series of Belfast based public one day steam trips is run to celebrate 150 years of Ulster railways.
1990 NIR Locomotive Inspector, and good friend of the Society, Frank Dunlop retires.
1991 President Mary Robinson officially launches No.461 after its restoration after over 30 years out of traffic.
1992 Belfast's new Yorkgate Station becomes the starting point for the first series of northern Santa Steam Trains.
1993 No.171 assists the movement of vehicles from the Belfast Transport Museum to the new Railway Gallery of the UFTM at Cultra.
Work progresses on the new Whitehead carriage shed, financed with grant aid from the Ireland Fund and the European Regional Development Fund.
1994 No.85 becomes the first steam locomotive to cross the new Dargan Bridge over the River Lagan in Belfast.
No.171 & No.461 feature in the BBC's "Derry To Kerry Great Railway Journey" with Michael Palin.
1995 No.171 & No.461 star in the film "Michael Collins". Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts also appear!
No.85 becomes the first steam locomotive to enter the new Great Victoria Street Station, Belfast.
1996 Nos. 85, 171, 186 & 461 appear at Dublin's Inchicore Works 150th anniversary celebrations.
1997 New locomotive workshop, incorporating a 100 year old overhead crane, is completed at Whitehead.
1998 Iron foundry is established at Whitehead.
No.461 helps to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the MGWR into Mullingar.
1999 No.85 helps Irish Rail to celebrate the 150th anniversaries of the arrival of the railway in Dundalk and Cork.
2000 President Mary McAleese officially launches recently restored Irish State Coach No.351.
No.3 "R.H. Smyth" is hired by Henry Boot Ltd. to assist with relaying the Bleach Green - Antrim line.
2001 The "Northern Counties" Railtour becomes the first Northern Ireland based two day railtour.
Irish State Coach 351 is awarded the Supreme Champion in the HRA Carriage and Wagon Awards.
2002 Dr. Joan Smyth, Chair of the N.I. Transport Holding Co., re-launches No.4 after its 10 year overhaul.
2003 The Whitehead based train of wooden body coaches is used for its final season.
2004 50th edition of the Society's magazine "Five Foot Three" is published.
The 30th season of Winter meetings in St. Jude's Hall, Belfast, is completed.
First public operation of new Mk2 coaches.
No.186 returns to traffic after 24 years.
The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland celebrates its 40th anniversary with a gala evening at Cultra.
2005 HRA's Coiley Award is presented for restoration of No.186 to main line status.
Between August and December "R.H. Smyth" is on hire to Amec Spie to work on relaying of the Bleach Green to Whitehead line.
2006 Official opening on 4th July of the "Henry Dunleath Workshop" at Whitehead.
Locomotive Officer Peter Scott receives an MBE for his contribution to railway heritage.
2007 Press release in January as Whitehead depot is officially bought from Carrickfergus Borough Council.
The Society gains full Accredited Museum status.
2008 GNR brake van No.81 is immaculately restored by a team of younger members at Whitehead.
Secondary Door Locking fitted to Mk2 coaches for operation in Northern Ireland.
Mk2 diner 547 returns to traffic.
First Cravens coaches into preservation operate.
2009 Tony Renehan, the first driver to spend his entire steam career on RPSI trains, retires after the "Top Link" railtour to Cork.
Society purchases first of class diesel locomotives GM B141 and B142 from Irish Rail.
2010 Society wins Heritage Railway Association Carriage & Wagon Award (Wagon Category) for the restoration of GNR brake van No.81.
2011 At an EGM the "Council" becomes the "Board".
Subsidiary company Heritage Engineering Ireland is set up.
Dr Joan Smyth and Robert C. Guinness appointed as Vice-Presidents.
2012 Nora Owen appointed as Vice-President.
In August work starts on new Whitehead station building.
2013 Offers of funding amounting to £2.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and GROW South Antrim announced.
New Whitehead Excursion Station building is completed.
2014 Celebrations for 50th Anniversary year.
Work commences on the second phase of development at Whitehead funded by GROW.
2015 On 31st January, locomotive No.131 steamed for the first time in over 50 years, and had its first test on the main line on 22nd February.
Society wins the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service.
Building work commences on massive museum and workshop development at Whitehead funded by Tourism NI and HLF.
2016 HM Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh travel on 'Royal Train' (No.85 "Merlin" and 5 Mk2 carriages) from Coleraine to Bellarena.

Keeping Steam alive in Ireland since 1964