The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland

The RPSI held its inaugural meeting in Belfast in September 1964

In the early 1960s, the future of the railways on the island of Ireland did not seem particularly threatened.

The closures of 1956/7 on the former Great Northern Railway seemed to have consolidated the network, and it appeared that steam traction would only gradually disappear. Investments in new locomotives, railcars and coaches seemed to suggest that the future for the surviving lines was secure.

Shortly after a rail tour to Portrush, organised by the Inst (Royal Belfast Academical Institution) Railway Society in September 1963, an ad hoc organisation known as the Northern Ireland Railway Societies Joint Committee was set up to run steam rail tours in the last days of steam.

The only market for rail tours in the 1960s was considered to be the railway enthusiast market: general public ventures were not considered viable, because the general public still thought of steam trains as normal everyday transport. However, the virtual end of steam operations in the Republic of Ireland, and the approaching demise of steam in the North, together with the experience of a successful rail tour from Belfast to Loughrea and back on April 4, 1964, persuaded three of the Joint Committee’s members to establish a preservation society.

The new society, which would own steam locomotives, keep them in traffic, and overhaul and maintain them, was established on an all-Ireland basis. This fundamental decision was founded not on any political considerations, but on the market potential for rail tour passengers, availability of representative locomotives and rolling stock, a larger variety of routes for special trains, and the potential for a larger membership base.

The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland held its inaugural meeting in Belfast in September 1964. Having acquired its first locomotive in 1965, the RPSI moved to its headquarters at Whitehead, Co Antrim, in 1966.  Here, major locomotive and carriage refurbishment is carried out in specialist buildings using specialist equipment, including a travelling overhead crane of 1897 vintage and a full forge/smithy. 

On summer Sundays, the general public and railway enthusiasts alike are welcome to come to Whitehead, Co Antrim, and enjoy a short ride on a steam locomotive run by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland. Guided tours run throughout the afternoon and a 1951 vintage dining car is open for teas and refreshments.

As well as operational stock, a number of the society’s other historic vehicles are stored at the Whitehead depot. These include No 27 Lough Erne, the last steam locomotive built for an Irish railway, the 1907 12-wheeled carriage No 861, last survivor of the Great Southern and Western Railway's Rosslare Express set, and the Great Northern Railway's last breakdown crane.

At Easter and Christmas, the society operates trains direct from Belfast to the excursion station at Whitehead, with the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus on board.

The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland's Whitehead depot lies approximately 19km north of Belfast on the old Belfast to Larne road (A2). The Northern Ireland Railways service from Belfast to Whitehead station is regular and the journey time is approximately 50 minutes. The RPSI depot is a ten minute walk from the station.

© The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland