How to get to Whitehead Excursion
||Welcome to the home
of the RPSI, Ireland's only remaining mainline steam engineering depot.
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.
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!
RPSI Whitehead Excursion Station on Multimap.com
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
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
Life During Wartime
|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 3Ã‚Â¼ 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
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
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
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 Ã‚Â£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.
Future plans for our base are quite extensive in scope.
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 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.
don't you come and join us?
Steam alive in Ireland since 1964