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Welcome to Whitehead Excursion Station
No.85 simmers in the sunset on shed at Whitehead.  Photo by E Pamely Welcome to the home of the RPSI, Ireland's only remaining mainline steam engineering depot. 
Whitehead Excursion Station is where all the locomotives and carriages in the RPSI's Northern Ireland collection are stored.  It is where all locomotive maintenance and overhaul is carried out.  The station consists of a station building (housing a shop open on our Summer Steam days), a platform, a short running line for public demonstrations and to allow the shunting of our stock.  Beyond the station are the sheds housing the engineering equipment and stores necessary to maintain Irelands mainline steam train fleet.

This webpage contains details of how to get to Whitehead Excursion Station, a short history of the Station and a review of the Station today.

Whitehead Excursion Station and the RPSI engineering depot are being developed.  Read more about these developments as part of our "RPSI 2020" future plan.

 

How to get to Whitehead Excursion Station
By Road: 
The RPSI's Whitehead depot lies approx 12 miles north of Belfast on the old Belfast - Larne road (A2).  On approaching Whitehead town, DOE signs direct the traveller to 'Railway Society'.  That is us! 

Map of Co. Antrim showing Whitehead
The RPSI Whitehead Excursion Station on Multimap.com

By Rail:
Travel from Belfast to Whitehead station on Northern Ireland Railways (the service is regular and the journey time is approximately 50 minutes).  The RPSI depot is a 10 minute walk out from the station - just ask the stationmaster! 

The History of Whitehead Excursion Station

What follows is the text of a fascinating leaflet produced by Mark Kennedy and once given to visitors to Whitehead.  It reveals historical details about the area and its involvement with the railway.

The success of the Northern Counties railway and the increasing prosperity of North East Ulster was a direct result of the linen industry. A good deal of flax used for linen was grown in County Londonderry and there were many mills in County Antrim to process it. The linen industry was helped by the American Civil War which caused a cotton shortage in England, so developing demand for Irish linen. Luckily for the BNCR, their territory did not suffer the same depopulation as much of the rest of Ireland did as a result of the famines of the late 1840s.

The Belfast and Ballymena Railway opened in 1848 from Belfast to Ballymena, Randalstown and Carrickfergus. The name of the company was changed to the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway in 1860. In 1862 the Carrickfergus and Larne Railway opened and the Larne and Stranraer steamboat service to Scotland began. The BNCR acquired the line in 1890

The English influence began on 1st July 1903 when the Midland Railway (of England) purchased the BNCR. The MR ran its Irish subsidiary through a committee known as the Northern Counties Committee. This arrangement was continued when the Midland became part of the LMS at the amalgamation of 1923 (when all the major railway companies in Britain were merged into four groups). On 1st January 1948 the LMS became part of British Railways along with the rest of the railways in Britain.

The Northern Ireland government created the Ulster Transport Authority, and the NCC became part of the new organisation on April Fools Day 1949. The UTA failed to co-ordinate Ulster’s public transport network and closed most of the railway lines in its care. In 1966 road and rail transport were separated again, this time as Northern Ireland Railways, Ulsterbus, and Northern Ireland carriers. In 1995 NIR and Ulsterbus were again merged (along with Belfast’s Citybus) into Translink.

The last mainline steam hauled passenger trains in these islands were hauled by locomotive No.53 (sister to the RPSI’s preserved No.4) on Easter Tuesday 1970 between Belfast and Whitehead.

Tourists

NCC staff E.J. Cotton and B.D. Wise stand out for their contribution to the development of tourism. Edward John Cotton featured in an Amanda McKittrick Ros novel Delina Delaney, in which he was portrayed as The Father of Steamy Enterprise.

In 1888, at the age of 35, Berkeley Deane Wise became Civil Engineer of the BNCR continuing tourist developments on a scale rarely seen before or since. Besides his normal railway work, he found time to build tea rooms, promenades, beaches, band stands, paths and footbridges at beauty spots along the line. He also extended hotels and planned golf courses. In 1889 Glenariff Glen was leased to the railway and opened to the public that summer. Two years later Wise designed and opened a tea room there. He built paths and footbridges linking Whitehead and Blackhead in 1892. He standardised the design of signal cabins and minor structures such as waiting rooms.

Stations rebuilt by him include: Portrush, Belfast York Road and station hotel, Antrim, Whiteabbey, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Carrickfergus, Glynn, Greenisland, Larne Harbour, Larne, Trooperslane and Whitehead. Waiting rooms were added at Glarryford and Limavady Junction and at Whiteabbey and Jordanstown to cope with expanding commuter traffic. He also built Portstewart Tram Depot. Throughout the 1890s Wise organised the building of new railway cottages and gate houses all over the system.

Wise was a strong advocate of the use of good quality stone ballast. He also pioneered the use of reinforced concrete from around 1900 on the railway.

He retired through ill health in 1906 and died three years later aged 56 in sight of Portrush station. He is probably best remembered for the Gobbins Cliff Path which was opened in 1902. Wise’s achievements on the Northern Counties were even more remarkable in that he was with the company for only eighteen years. Along with his assistant James A. Hanna, he gave the Northern Counties a distinctive architectural style of red brick buildings with large overhanging awnings and half-timbered gables. The style owes much to the architect Norman Shaw who popularised the Old English style in Britain.

Freeman Wills Crofts, Wise’s nephew was Railway Engineer at Coleraine and later became assistant Chief Engineer. He was the author of forty detective novels, some including a railway scene which he often tested out on the NCC. In 1929, he resigned from the railway to write full time, and in the 1940s was given his own BBC radio series called Inspector French Investigates.

Whitehead

Whitehead has the railway to thank for its development from a small clachan of houses to a pretty Edwardian seaside resort. In 1864 Whitehead had one platform and an old carriage as a waiting room. A new station was opened at Whitehead in 1877.

Whitehead Excursion Station on 28th June 1937.  Photo courtesy of D Young (Loco and General Works)
Whitehead Excursion Station on 28th June 1937.  Photo courtesy of D Young (Loco and General Works)
Following protests by the Women’s Temperance league in 1883, the refreshment room had to offer tea as well as alcohol, and close after the last train.

In 1894 a second platform, loop and full signalling was added. In summer 1902 King’s Road and a new bridge were constructed replacing a level crossing. At the same time the main line was lowered between the station and Slaughterford Bridge.

In July 1903 extensive improvements commenced, including the erection of a two road engine shed, water tower and goods shed, sidings, turntable, stabling for horses and jaunting cars and four railway workers’ cottages. A windmill pumped water for the engines into the water tower. By 1903 the BNCR had issued 145 Villa Tickets for Whitehead. Ten years later, the population had increased to 1,200. This was partly thanks to the railway’s practice of offering Villa Tickets which gave families who built a house in the town free travel for up to seven years.

A cartage service operated by McCrea and McFarland at many NCC stations, including Whitehead, was taken over by the railway company on 1st January 1904. From July 1924 these services were once again contracted out to Wordie and Co.

In spring 1904 Whitehead Golf Club opened with help from the railway. On 10th July 1907 new island excursion platforms were opened. In 1908 a site at the Belfast end of the promenade was rented to Whitehead Sailing Club to erect a clubhouse, and in 1911 the old landing stage was replaced by a concrete structure. The railway company built bathing boxes and a 500 seater pavilion. The railway created the beach by carting sand from Portrush and building groynes using old railway sleepers.

In 1925 the government offered a grant towards the labour cost of doubling the track between Carrickfergus and Whitehead. The doubling was completed and opened in 1929. In 1937 the company proposed to build hotels, each with a capacity of 300 beds, using reinforced concrete at Whitehead, Portrush and Portstewart, but the LMS in Euston overruled it as the NCC had made a loss that year. There was a robbery at Whitehead booking office in February 1939.
 

The engine shed was used to store locomotives out of use over the winter in the 1930s and was reopened during World War II, closing again at the end of the war.

A railway bar was provided at the station in April 1946, serving only snack teas and soft drinks - most LMS bars had been closed during the war due to a shortage of drink. The main station is still in use today by NIR.
 

The Gobbins
 

In 1892 the railway company opened up the coastline around Whitehead and Blackhead to excursionists by making pathways and footbridges along the cliffs to encourage rail traffic from Belfast and Larne.

The Gobbins was an elaborate coastal cliff path, designed by B.D. Wise on the Islandmagee peninsula a few miles from Whitehead station. Construction work commenced in May 1901. The two mile long path incorporated tunnels and spectacular bridges linking several sections of walkway high above the sea. The tubular and suspension bridges were built in Belfast and floated out from Whitehead on barges before being lifted into position.

The first section of the path opened in 1902, and the advertisement proclaimed “New cliff path along the Gobbins Cliffs, with its ravines, bore caves, natural aquariums ... has no parallel in Europe as a marine cliff walk”.

The Gobbins could be reached from either Whitehead, by walking along the Blackhead path, or from Ballycarry station where jaunting cars met the trains, and visitors could stop for refreshments in the tea room at the entrance. When Wise retired in 1906 the company seemed to lose interest. It was to have stretched 3ƒ€š‚¼ miles with a northern exit at Heddle’s Port but sadly the path was never completed. Severe gales and rock falls meant a high annual maintenance bill and, after a lack of repairs or maintenance during World War II, the railway decided it could not afford the rebuilding costs and so the path was closed in 1961.

Click on this image to read fascinating obiturays of Mr J Montgomery, Whitehead stationmaster for 34 years.
The picture above shows Whitehead station master for 34 years, Mr. J.Montgomery.
Click on the picture to read newspaper obituaries of Mr Montgomery kindly supplied to us by his family.
Life During Wartime

The NCC played an important role in World War II as it was strategically placed to serve ports and factories crucial to the war effort. The NCC prepared an emergency timetable and built air raid shelters. At stations, all glass roofs were painted black and name boards were removed.

Whitehead became the headquarters of the Royal Engineers 8th Railway Construction Co. Their armoured cement wagon was the Northern Counties equivalent to Corporal Jones’ Butcher’s lorry in the Dads Army television comedy. Ambulance Trains were stored at the Excursion station platform from October 1940. The Whitehead ambulance train was never put to its intended purpose but it did travel to Londonderry to collect casualties from the Bismark action and bring them back to Belfast. The Ward coaches each held 40 patients. The interiors were painted white and had polished linoleum floors. The Treatment coach included an operating theatre, a pharmacy, and a utility room that could be used as an isolation ward or a padded cell.

You can read more about the Ambulance Trains in Journal no.15 of our Society magazine "Five Foot Three".

Whitehead Excursion Station Today

In recent years, the RPSI has added considerable extra siding space and extended the original locomotive shed. Beside and behind it are the two new maintenance sheds built by the Society - the Carriage Shed (1992) with assistance from the International Fund for Ireland, and the Locomotive Workshop (1997). The Workshop was built at a cost of almost ƒ€š‚£100k after a successful appeal for funds, and grant aid by the European Regional Development Fund. 

All heavy locomotive maintenance, including locomotive rebuilds and outside engineering work, take place here, along with all maintenance of the operating set of carriages used on Belfast based day trips and Three Day Tours.

Whitehead Site Plan

Future plans for our base are quite extensive in scope.

On "Summer Steam" open days, we steam a locomotive and the public and enthusiasts are welcome to come along and have a short ride by steam train within our site for a nominal charge.  Our 1951-built dining car is on hand for teas and refreshments, and a Souvenir Shop is open.  The full site is usually open and guided tours run throughout the afternoon. 

Aerial photograph by David Orr Aerial photograph by David Orr
Aerial photographs taken by David Orr in mid 2007.

Aerial photograph taken by A Houston on 27th July 2011.

As well as our operational stock, a number of other historic vehicles in our possession are stored here. Included in these are the last steam locomotive built for an Irish railway, No. 27 "Lough Erne"; 1907-built twelve wheeled Carriage No. 861, the last survivor of the Great Southern & Western Railway's "Rosslare Express" set, and the Great Northern Railway's last breakdown crane. 

At Easter, Halloween and Christmas, we operate trains direct from Belfast to the Excursion station, with the "Easter Bunny", witches&wizards or Santa Claus on board. 

Currently, work includes fitting out the new Locomotive Workshop, ongoing track maintenance, and we plan to install a turntable again, as the progressive modernisation of the national railway system results in fewer turntables being available elsewhere. 

Every weekend, volunteers assemble to work on the Station itself, or to help with maintenance or restoration of our locomotives or carriages. Its great fun and a great way to relax from the rigors of modern life.

Why don't you come and join us?

Keeping Steam alive in Ireland since 1964

 


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