Programme of Events 2021/22

Below is a summary of talks and events hosted by the IRRS London. If you would like any further information about a subject or wish to get in touch with the speaker, please use the Contact Us page.

Thursday 21 April 2022 “NIR – Today and Tomorrow” by Richard Knox

Photo by Aaron McCracken

The last meeting of the 2021/22 season was opened by Honorary President, Dick Fearn praising a successful season, maintaining momentum despite Covid-19. He reminded us that IRRS is not just a historical society on railways in Ireland but also a record of the current and future situation in Ireland. Chairman Tim Morton echoed Dick’s words and introduced the speaker Richard Knox, General Manager NIR Rail Services.

Richard explained his background starting as a junior signalman at the age of 16 and climbing the ladder after 35 years’ service to his current position. Richard explained the structure of the nationalised transport industry in Northern Ireland with Translink as the umbrella over buses, metro and railways. He gave us a brief history that catalogued historically the under investment and low passenger numbers (6.4m passenger journeys per annum at the turn of the century). At that time, consideration was being made to cut further the services but a “Save Our Railways” campaign and Government review reversed this trend. The challenge Richard stated was to keep the trains running but then 2001 saw an investment in new trains, facilities and timetables.

It was a new dawn not just new trains but a new culture. Class 3000 and then 4000 replaced the time expired Class 80 and 450 trains. Richard then brought us up-to-date with how the company is performing and developing. He then explained the impact of Covid with a 90% reduction in passenger numbers at the height of the pandemic. But recovery showed a return to about 70-75% of numbers pre-Covid. Once again a challenge, this time to build confidence in the public to return to rail travel. Richard then gave us an insight into the future. Exciting developments are taking place such as the New Trains programme to create permanent 6-car ‘walk through’ CAF units, station developments including Yorkgate and the Belfast Transport Hub, track and signalling upgrades and, further ahead, plans to upgrade the Enterprise service and to reduce NIR’s carbon emissions.

Q&A followed with a wide range of questions including the possibility of line re-openings, relations with the RPSI particularly over Portrush operations, electrification and bus/rail integration.

Overall this was an excellent end to the season with an inspiring, informative talk that recognised the challenges in Northern Ireland during and post the “Troubles”. NIR is an excellent example of a well-run nationalised bus and rail service. Contrasting notably, as one questioner thought, with the successive Governments in the UK that have pursued a privatised system.

Thursday 17 March 2022 “50 years ago – the films of Macha Film Studios” by John Friel

John Friel, brother Charles and others set up Macha Film Studios in the late-1960’s to record the disappearance of steam and other traditional features of the Irish railway scene. Although amateurs, their approach to film making was highly professional embracing a filming van, imaginatively planned and co-ordinated shots, different photographers at different places, and skilful editing afterwards. Always remembering the equipment available was in todays terms primitive. Using 8mm cameras with a limited (30 sec time span before a re-wind of the clockwork mechanism) John commenced with an early silent film of the ‘Tourist Train’, steam hauled by ‘Jeeps’. This was followed by a promotional film for the RPSI and a run on the DSER displayed the scenic splendours of that line. By 1967 Sullivan Boomer provided erudite commentary on board the trains. The audience were very pleased to see J15 186 and ex SLNCR No 27 in action. Some of the films included run-pasts – almost forgotten in this H&S age. . The final batch of films included Dublin and the Guinness railway and then evocative shots of the once extensive Belfast Harbour system. The final films included an open day at Inchicore Works including the star of the screen 184 – in a bizarre livery applied while appearing in the film ‘Darling Lili’

Their results are among the best of Irish railway ciné.The audience were very appreciative and enquired if the possibility of a commercial production as DVDs might be considered. “Time and money might be the issue” John replied. An enjoyable evening for everyone with the sights and sounds of steam on the GN, early RPSI tours & spoil trains,

Thursday 17 February 2022
“Ireland’s Remarkable Industrial Railways” by Andrew Waldron

A renowned expert on Ireland’s industrial railways, Andrew took us on a unique journey. For decades, industrial railways were an integral part of the production process. They ranged from the Guinness Brewery Railway to obscure horse tramways. Industries included mineral extraction, distilling, sugar, foundries, peat extraction, forestry, farming, engineering, ship building, collieries, salt, textiles, quarries. He commenced with a history and explanation of the complex narrow and broad gauge systems of the Guinness brewery in Dublin. There were intriguing insights into the use of broad gauge trucks into which, with a gearing system, one of the narrow gauge engines fitted to create a “truck engine”. And how Guinness insisted on the security necessary for the “pay train”.

Over 100 participants enjoyed Andrew’s informative, illustrated lecture, as he took us through the variety of industrial railways throughout Ireland, that were perhaps unknown to many in the audience. As one participant said “Amazing talk, Andrew. So many new pics and such an Informative and entertaining commentary. You have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Irish industrial railways! We’re privileged that you are sharing all your knowledge with us”. Inter alia we saw a rooftop locomotive worked railway and industrial monorails The lecture was a real insight into bygone industrial transport, now almost all consigned to history and he ended with more up to date views of industrial railways today..

Thursday 20 January 2022

“Irish Railway Catering 1900-2017 – From dining car to food trolley” by Louis Cullen

Louis Cullen, Fellow Emeritus in History at TCD, shared his research into railway catering in the Republic of Ireland. It started with meals from refreshment rooms in stations, onboard catering then expanded after 1918, the GSR’s Pullman cars followed, expansion continued and the zenith was reached in the “golden years” of the 1990’s, with over 70 trains/day offering catering cars including City Gold and the Enterprise. Louis elaborated on the meals and personalities in the staff on board the trains. He made a special mention of John Connolly, a legendary figure on the early morning Cork to Dublin trains. The service is now offered by private contractors (on and off trains) and by 2017 the onboard offer was largely a trolley service. One longs for the old buffet and dining cars.

After the interval the audience were invited to share their experiences of catering on Irish railways. We were regaled with memories of the smell of bacon for breakfast and the “All-Ins”, the staff description for the mixed grills served later in the day. Particularly interesting were a former Irish Rail employee memories of working in the dining and buffet cars. He confirmed Louis’s recollection of the good morale of the catering staff. It was an enjoyable selection of members’ memories of this bygone age of eating on board the trains.

ZOOM – Thursday 9 December 2021

“With Lance King in Ulster 1957 – 1970 – The NCC in Action”  by Leslie McAllister + London Area AGM

London Area Committee member, Leslie McAllister, paid a third tribute to our late founder Chairman, Lance King. Leslie divided the talk into three parts – first looking at Lance’s colour images of the remaining lines of the former Northern Counties Railway (the NCC). Secondly he showed photos of NCC locos on Great Northern lines including shots of Moguls and Jeeps (who were not called as such by the enginemen – Leslie said). A favourite loco of Leslie’s, GNR 171 Slieve Gullion, appeared as an interloper in the talk!. Finally “Spoil in the Sun” chronicled the famous Stone Trains. Lance travelled on many of the early RPSI tours, which were illustrated. Lance lived on the mainland and his route to Ireland saw him use the Heysham-Belfast ferry, (one of the quirks of this ferry was it reversed to the terminal!!!)
The 148 attendees enjoyed the superb photographs taken by Lance on Kodachrome film. The locomotives and trains were often seen in picturesque settings and locations. A high light was the images of land, sea and steam on the Belfast- Larne line. Leslie’s local knowledge and experience helped in the talk, including identifying old friends in some of the shots. After a lively Q&A session everyone thanked Leslie for a heady mixture of nostalgia, brilliantly recorded by a master photographer!

ZOOM – Thursday 18 November 2021

 “The County Donegal Railway – Survival and Revival” by Joe Begley

Some 140 members and guests joined the London Area lecture on the 18th November on Zoom. Joe Begley is a railway author long interested in the CDR. He commenced with a detailed careful description of the genesis and complex relationships of the line. From the Finn Valley Railway to the slow expansion from Derry and Strabane to Ballyshannon, Killybegs and Glenties. Joe described the “apathy of the mercantile class in Donegal” that prevented proper investment and building of the lines. Based on new material, he recounts the many challenges faced but survived by the railway – financial, Partition and war to name but three – the CDR was resilient, enabling it to outlive most of its contemporaries until closure in 1959.

But the story did not end there. Initially thanks to American interest and purchase of locos and stock from Dr Ralph Cox, many items of rolling stock enjoyed a stay of execution and have been recovered and restored by the North West of Ireland Railway Society, the Foyle Valley Railway Centre and the South Donegal Railway Restoration Society. Hopes remain of further restoration and growth to keep the memory of this well remembered narrow gauge line alive.. The memory of the CDR is secure and Joe brings the story right up to date.

As a participant said in the discussion that followed the talk “Thank you very much for this fascinating talk about the CDR. Many of us know the story of the railcars in the 1930s to 50s but not the whole history. The way in which locos and carriages sat abandoned at Strabane for so long after the 1960 closure is striking. The number of locos, railcars and carriages that have survived into the 21st century is most impressive, as is the preservation effort. The County Donegal lives on!”

 “Irish Rail Timetabling – Slotting it all together” by Kieran Marshall

The 2021 – 22 London Area programme commenced with opening remarks by Tim Morton and Dick Fearn. Over 100 participants enjoyed a detailed but clear explanation of the Irish Rail timetable production. Kieran is an enthusiast, preservationist and railway professional working in Irish Rail’s timetabling office. He moved to Ireland from Nottingham in 2007. Kieran described how Irish Rail approaches the complex task of planning the timetable, balancing many different requirements between commercial, fleet, infrastructure and signalling, as well as personnel considerations. He explained the change to a new computer system (HaCon) in 2018, that replaced the previous Voyager. It is challenging to “slot it all together” he said. In addition to that, Kieran explained the further considerations involved in threading additional, special services through the timetable.

After an interval and Kieran gave a close insight into the practicalities and professionalism involved. He activated the system on line and simulated a number of trains running and the potential conflicts that had to be resolved day to day. One question from the audience was “If you are planning a slow moving train such as a track machine will the system automatically suggest places where it is diverted to a refuge siding? Fascinating to see Kiernan achieving this pathway. Further questions were both detailed and more general. Steam trains had to be fitted in dependent on their timings and speeds, but sadly due to Covid he had not been able to exercise this challenge.