Full steam ahead for former Belfast to Dublin train after £400k restoration
An historic steam engine which last operated in the early 1960s in Northern Ireland is back on track after a five-year restoration by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (RSPI) at Whitehead.
Former Great Northern Railway (Ireland) express engine No. 131, which dates from 1901 and was built for the Belfast-Dublin line, was officially launched back into service on Saturday.
The £400,000 project received funding support from Generating Rural Opportunities within South Antrim (GROW), through the Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme, which is part-funded by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the European Union.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester, president of the Heritage Railway Association (HRA), hailed the restoration as “a stunning achievement”.
He said: “I congratulate RPSI on this major success story which is being applauded by enthusiasts from across Britain and Ireland. An incalculable number of hours has been put into this restoration and all concerned should be immensely proud of the result.”
The 55-ton No. 131 was withdrawn from traffic in Dublin in 1963 but happily saved from the scrapman’s torch. After a period in storage, it went on display on a plinth at Dundalk and was then dismantled as part of a restoration scheme that never completed.
In 2003 the engine arrived at Whitehead in a dismantled state, after having been presented to RPSI by Irish Rail. In 2014, a funding package was put together by GROW, and in 2015 the first test steaming of the boiler was carried out.
Many of its new parts had to be made from scratch to replace missing components and bit-by-bit the engine was painstakingly rebuilt. The project involved the professional staff of Heritage Engineering Ireland, the RPSI’s engineering subsidiary, as well as the society’s own volunteers.
The overhaul involved the rebuilding of a coal and water tender to run behind No. 131, while the engine also had to be equipped with modern electronic safety equipment to comply with current railway regulations.
Visitors will not find a finer example of the preservation of industrial or railway heritage than here in Whitehead.
RPSI chairman, Canon John McKegney described the launch of No. 131 as a red-letter day for the organisation representing the successful conclusion of the biggest restoration project ever undertaken at Whitehead.
“This was an engine which we thought we would never see back in operation," he said.
"But the skills and ingenuity of the engineering team and volunteers at Whitehead have guaranteed that this historic engine will once again take to the tracks.
“We are as pleased as punch and now look forward to seeing No. 131 back on the Dublin line. We give thanks to Irish Rail for donating the engine to the Society in the first place and are indebted to GROW for providing the funding which made it possible for this dream to come true.”
Canon McKegney also paid tribute to individual RPSI members and supporters who donated £65,000 to the 131 appeal to help fund the restoration.
He said: “This project really caught the imagination of our membership and without their generous contribution to the appeal, we would not be where we are today.”
Emma Stubbs, manager of GROW, said they were delighted to see the project coming to a successful conclusion and to see the locomotive back in action.
She added: “Funding of £130,000 was awarded to this project to preserve and restore this important heritage asset for future generations to enjoy. Alongside the funding, significant volunteer time was invested in the restoration, and we are delighted that the locomotive is back to working order and look forward to seeing it steaming down the track.”
Alderman May Beattie, vice chair of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s Community Planning Committee, who took part in the ceremony, said: “This is an excellent example of teamwork and commitment. Well done and congratulations to all involved.
“Visitors will not find a finer example of the preservation of industrial or railway heritage than here in Whitehead.”
Final approval procedures are in progress with Northern Ireland Railways and the Department for Infrastructure, and RPSI is confident that No. 131 will be back on the main line by mid-May.
At the ceremony, the HRA Manisty Award was re-presented to the RPSI. The Society won the coveted award at a ceremony in Birmingham in February and the plaque will be displayed at Whitehead Railway Museum.
Belfast Telegraph Digital