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Love of railways sent clerics off on a totally new track

As the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland officially opens its £3m museum in Whitehead today, Ivan Little says it is full steam ahead for members, including a priest and a retired rector

Few strangers would have guessed that the hard-working man sweating over odd - and dirty - jobs at the new Whitehead railway museum in Co Antrim at the weekend had been involved in a very different role in very different surroundings just a short time earlier.

For the 77-year-old steam train enthusiast in the well-worn blue overalls had been kitted out in rather more pristine vestments to do God's work for over three hours in Maghaberry prison, where Fr Eddie Creamer is a part-time chaplain.

The Clonard Monastery-based Redemptorist priest, who's originally from Bray in Co Wicklow, has been a member of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland for nearly 40 years.

"I was always fascinated with trains from childhood," he says. "When I was working in the Philippines I joined the RPSI just to get their magazine sent to me, but when I returned to Ireland I came to Whitehead to take a few photographs of the trains.

"I asked if they needed anyone to help them and they haven't let me go. And now I'm here once a week. I find it very relaxing."

Fr Eddie's not the only 'white collar worker' in the organisation, whose chairman is retired Church of Ireland rector, the Rev Canon John McKegney.

Today the two men of the cloth, who could be described as the personification of rail ecumenism, will see the RPSI's prayers answered with the official opening of its magnificent £3m museum which incorporates a series of attractions including exhaustive historical displays in a series of buildings together with the chance for visitors to see the society's rolling and static stock up close and personal.

Mr McKegney, who has been associated with the RPSI for half a century, says the museum is an exciting red letter day for him and the society's 1,000 members around the world.

He adds: "A lot of our engines and carriages are tucked away from public view for most of the time - apart from our excursions here and on the mainline lines.

"But now we will be able to share our treasures after the opening of the museum, which will operate on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with one-hour guided tours by our team of around 30 volunteers."

The deceptively large facility has been on track for seven years after the RPSI bought the Whitehead site and got itself accredited with museum status, meaning that it could go full steam ahead with its plans and applications for funding to the Heritage Lottery Fund and other council, tourism and rural development organisations.

The RPSI's links with Whitehead go back 51 years, to when it set up a rudimentary base at what was the old and derelict Whitehead excursion station, but it has travelled a long way since, literally and figuratively.

Old photographs in the museum's galleries not only capture the social history of the railways, but also of Whitehead.

One amazing picture shows thousands of day trippers from Belfast descending on the excursion station of Whitehead which flourished after the arrival of the railway.

"On one day alone in 1904 it's said that 7,000 people came by train to Whitehead, which must have been the Blackpool or Spain of its day," says retired Belfast Telegraph journalist Robin Morton, a founder member of the RPSI.

One part of the museum is housed in the old stables building at Whitehead, an area which used to be choc-a-bloc with horses and jaunting cars taking visitors to the Gobbins cliff path, a groundbreaking tourist attraction developed by pioneering railway engineer Berkley Dean Wise.

The new museum is now part of a tourism initiative to exploit, in Wild Atlantic Way fashion, the riches of the Causeway coastal route, including the restored Gobbins and the Victoriana appeal of Whitehead.

But the museum isn't just expected to be popular with older people, getting all misty-eyed about the heady days of steam.

For youngsters have become increasingly fanatical devotees of steam too thanks to the likes of Thomas the Tank Engine, Harry Potter and the Hogwarts Express and the Railway Children movie.

"Steam trains still have a magical fascination for children", says Robin, who adds that the museum itself is also set to star in a new movie. The producers of a film about Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann rented out Whitehead to double up as an English railway station which featured heavily in the footballer's story.

An RPSI engine was also hired by the movie-makers, but they used a smoke machine to recreate the steam effect.

The society's trains were also used in a film about the Great Train Robbery in the Seventies and in the Liam Neeson movie about Michael Collins in 1996.

More mature film buffs who've visited Whitehead since its 'soft' opening in March have also been reminded of a classic black-and-white weepie as they entered a newly-built period-style tearoom on the platform.

The exterior is a nod to the instantly recognisable designs of the architect Charles Lanyon, but the interior inevitably draws comparisons with the tearoom in the Trevor Howard/Celia Johnston film Brief Encounter.

Behind the counter, RPSI volunteer Eileen Armstrong - who also runs the catering on board the organisation's excursion trains - says it's something many visitors have commented on but she insists the cafe isn't just about tea and scones.

She says: "We have a fabulous supervisor, Jackie Webster and a wonderful chef, Martin Black, who offer three-course meals at lunchtimes."

Jackie is also considering introducing afternoon teas in a carriage which took the Queen on a nostalgic steam train journey from Coleraine to Bellarena last year.

Just down the platform at Whitehead, a new signal cabin, fitted out with original railway control equipment, is also part of the museum.

Robin says: "The signal box gives children a hands-on experience, as they can operate some of the levers which would have controlled train movements."

The museum is close to the regular Whitehead railway station and the main Larne line, where modern-day train drivers often sound their horns as they pass by and the RPSI volunteers respond with a whistle from their steam engines at their base, which is a hive of industry all year round as members like Fr Creamer give up their spare time to lovingly maintain the organisation's steam engines and carriages, which need constant care and attention.

The organisation has now started to collect diesel engines, which once might have been seen as contrary to its very ethos. "But the diesels are part of the heritage and history too" says Robin, who adds that visitors to the new museum have the chance to get within touching distance of the old engines and carriages from special viewing points, where they can also see volunteers carrying out their maintenance work.

Nowadays, as well as the crucial volunteering work, the RPSI has a professional approach to railway preservation, with a general manager in post and marketing and education officers in the pipeline.

Mr McKegney says: "We also have a subsidiary of the RPSI - Heritage Engineering Ireland - which takes contracts to do other work from outside sources like the restoration of the a Bessbrook tram trailer, which took passengers and freight between the village and Newry until 1948"

The exhibitions don't shy away from telling the whole story of the railways, good and bad.

One section deals with smuggling during the war and another recalls the days of the Peace Train which ran between Belfast and Dublin in 1989 to oppose the repeated IRA bombings of the cross-border lines and the Enterprise service.

Another storyboard is devoted to the horrendous disaster in 1889, when 89 people were killed outside Armagh in Ireland's worst ever railway accident, involving a train on a Sunday School outing to Warrenpoint.

The tragedy led to significant and almost immediate improvements in rail safety right around the world.

Ironically, many of the victims are buried in the graveyard of St Mark's Church in Armagh, which was Mr McKegney's parish before he retired.

The curator of the new museum is a young man who has virtually grown up with steam in his nostrils.

Edward Friel's father Charles has long been a key component in the RPSI's success story.

Edward, who's 29, says: "As a child I was always a passenger on the RPSI trains and in my late teens I started to 'get' why people have such a passion about them. I've been a volunteer for about 12 years and my new role is also in a voluntary capacity.

"We've been working for the last three or four years on the information for interpretative material that is on the walls here."

Edward, who says he and other members take immense satisfaction from the museum, hopes that more young people will join the RPSI ranks.

At present around 50% of the members are over 65.

Museum officials hope to attract school groups on study trips, but they'll also be able to dress for the part with a selection of outfits and costumes from bygone eras.

At today's opening, however, the thoughts of RPSI members will be with the family of former chairman Roy Grayson, whose photograph appears in a massive montage of society members.

Mr Grayson died eleven days ago and Robin Morton says: "He'll be sadly missed. Roy actually bought one of our engines for the RPSI."

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