RPSI blazes new trail with Whitehead Railway Museum

Hugh Dougherty visits the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland’s museum on the Antrim coast, which has now been nominated for a Heritage Railway Association Peter Manisty Award for excellence.

When the first RPSI members moved their embryonic Irish railway heritage collection to the old Whitehead Excursion Station at Whitehead in County Antrim in 1966, they could never have envisaged that, 51 years on, the site would have developed into a working locomotive depot, an engineering centre of excellence and a first class railway museum.

GNR(I) 4-4-0 No. 171 Slieve Gullion, the basis of the museum branding, and CIE diesel B142 loom large above visitors to the locomotive buildings.

Yet, that’s exactly what you’ll find at the Whitehead Railway Museum, which, thanks to £3.1m in funding from a range of bodies, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, Generating Rural Opportunities Within South Antrim (GROW), the European Union and Tourism Ireland, plans to attract 15,000 visitors in its first full year of operation.

Although the official opening of the museum took place on October 25, the museum had, in fact, opened its doors to the public at the end of March this year, and it was open to the public for guided tours every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The period cafe and tearoom in the replica station building.

Knowledge and experience

My guide, the knowledgeable and experienced Charles Friel BEM, a long-time RPSI stalwart, photographer, archivist and activist, was proud to show me just what has been achieved, building firmly on the facilities that had evolved over half a century to produce an attractive, well-laid out and accessible museum site, which tells its story very visually to general visitors and railway fans alike.

“We’ve striven to tell the story behind the site and the exhibits,” said Charles, “so that visitors can learn about the railways and the impact they had on society, see historic engineering practices underway, and appreciate that we also run steam and diesel trains across the Irish railway network, an activity that we’ve branded ‘Museum on the Move’, to ensure that everything comes together.”

Traditional engineering skills are presented above the workshops using pictures of RPSI volunteers to explain them.

Society members have been trained as guides, and, eventually, there will be self-guided tours using apps, which will expand on the existing and informative information boards around the site, with historic journey apps being developed for use on mainline trains, too.

Tours start at the replica of Whiteabbey Station, which has been fitted out with a First World War tearoom, all dark woodwork, mirrors and vintage railway posters, and is open to the public, who can use it without paying to tour the museum. The building also houses the museum’s full-time administrative and catering staff, led by manager Ruther Harper, and it may be extended as the museum develops.

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