Published: 6th November 2014
The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (RPSI) was founded at a meeting held at the Presbyterian Hostel in Howard Street, Belfast, on September 30 1964. The centrepiece of a year of celebrations of the society’s 50th anniversary took place in the form of a Grand Gala Dinner in Belfast City Hall’s Great Hall on September 13. City Hall could hardly have been a more appropriate location, being just 300 yards from the former Presbyterian Hostel.
Addressing the guests, Belfast Lord Mayor Councillor Nichola Mallon said that the RPSI could reflect on a hugely successful 50 years during which it had delivered on objectives set out in 1964 to keep the era of steam trains alive in Ireland North and South. “Much of this success is down to the efforts of countless volunteers who have rolled up their sleeves, literally and metaphorically. The Society's members are the selfless heroes who have dedicated themselves to building up the Society and tonight they can reflect with pride on what they have achieved."
RPSI chairman, Denis Grimshaw (the Society's first Honorary Secretary back in 1964) told how the Society had been established by a number of people with an interest in railway heritage in general and steam traction in particular. He spoke of the skills and commitment to restoration, maintenance and operation of heritage locomotives at Whitehead (near Belfast) and in Dublin, noting RPSI now ran 70 trains a year over Ireland’s main lines (north and south of the border) and these carried 30,000 passengers.
He expressed RPSI’s gratitude to Translink and Iarnród Éireann, the train companies which made this possible, and to the RPSI's funding partners, notably GROW South Antrim, Heritage Lottery Fund, Carrickfergus Council and Ulster Garden Villages. "We have come a long way from our modest initial aspirations and capabilities 50 years ago - but we haven't finished our journey yet. We are now in the process of expanding our facilities at Whitehead even further to develop our premises into a working museum with extensive education and interpretative facilities for our visitors."
Permanent Secretary of the Department for Regional Development, Barney McGahan (speaking on behalf the Minister, Danny Kennedy MLA, who was unable to attend) assured the Society that Minister Kennedy and he appreciated the effort and work carried out by the RPSI in preserving rail heritage and allowing the public to be part of the ‘heritage rail experience’. “There is no doubt that your steam trains are a visible, and perhaps noisy, reminder to the public that rail travel is alive and well," he commented.
In retrospect he thought it was a strategic error to lose almost 800 miles of railway in the 1950s. "Your Society has, however, shown far better foresight by your successful effort in maintaining the history of the rail network and safeguarding this heritage for future generations. In addition, your preservation and ongoing development of the skills necessary to continue to maintain and operate the heritage railways is to be admired and recognised."
Canon John McKegney, a lifelong transport enthusiast and a member of the RPSI for many years, closed the speeches with a witty address, noting that the earliest reference to steam trains could be found in the Bible. Isaiah 6:1-4 included the passages: "In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs ... at the sound of their voices, the door posts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke." Although Isaiah had not recorded what class the engine was, Canon McKegney felt there was no doubt what he was referring to!
Lord O'Neill, who acted as Master of Ceremonies at the Gala Dinner, had attended the 1964 inaugural meeting and been invited to become RPSI Patron and subsequently President. RPSI feels he may well have set a world record for the President of a Railway Heritage organisation by being in post for 50 years. To mark this anniversary Denis Grimshaw presented Lord O'Neill with a specially commissioned set of silver cufflinks bearing the RPSI 50 logo.
In the early 1960s the railway network was in decline, with many lines facing closure or the threat of closure. RPSI was formed by a small group of enthusiasts coming together with the aim of preserving some examples of steam traction. Initial thoughts were that they might lease, or perhaps buy, some locomotives and ask the railway company to store them so that they could be borrowed from time to time for special trains.
The founders never imagined that the Society would build up a collection of seven or eight mainline steam engines, all capable of being put into service, and a fleet of 25 carriages - nor that it would become a fully licensed train operating company in the Republic of Ireland. Moreover, RPSI is now in the process of transforming its engineering base at Whitehead from an industrial workshop to a working heritage museum where visitors will be able to view restoration projects in progress.
While the Gala Dinner, very close to the actual 50th anniversary date, represented the formal highlight of the year, 2014 has been packed with other celebratory markers.
RPSI 50 was officially launched at Whitehead on March 26 when a specially commissioned film made by RPSI member and movie-maker Mike Beckett was premiered. The 30-minute film telling the story of the RPSI’s past, present and future is available on a DVD which includes other material, funds raised from sales going to the RPSI. The viewing was followed by Lord O'Neill driving RPSI’s GNR (Ireland) V class 4-4-0 No. 85 Merlin through a 1964-2014 banner at the excursion station.
All RPSI events during 2014 have been branded as part of the RPSI 50 programme with locomotives working RPSI tours carrying suitable headboards.
A Grand Gala Dinner was held in Dublin on May 17 - one of the great strengths of RPSI being that it has always been an all-Ireland body with an active group in the Republic of Ireland as well as in Northern Ireland.
During July and August ‘Pop-Up’ displays appeared at stations in Northern Ireland and in the Republic.
RPSI 50 posters have been displayed on NIR and IÉ service trains drawing the attention of passengers to the activities of the Society and directing them to the RPSI website. This is believed to have produced an upsurge in bookings for RPSI tour trains.
Thanks to East Antrim MP, Sammy Wilson, an Early Day Motion was tabled at Parliament noting the RPSI’s Golden Anniversary and commending the Society for its efforts north and south. It is thought this may be the first Early Day Motion featuring a heritage railway anniversary.
A Golden Anniversary cake (iced with the RPSI 50 logo) was cut on the platform at Portrush on September 14 following arrival of the RPSI’s ‘Portrush Flyer’ rail tour, the ceremony taking place alongside No. 85 Merlin which had worked the train from Whitehead.
An aim for the year was to recruit 50 new members and to turn 50 existing members into working members during the year. The total of new members thus far stands at 39.
The RPSI 50 image has been projected in the form of lapel pin badges, pens, T-shirts and a car sticker, all helping raise awareness of RPSI.
Having delivered his RPSI 50 talk in Dublin on September 25, Charles Friel repeated it in London on October 16.
A 2015 RPSI Colour Calendar featuring 14 views of RPSI locomotives in action has been produced and can be ordered now through the RPSI website. All proceeds will go to the fund to overhaul the Society’s Cravens coaches.