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There is a man who went to Connolly Station at 4am last Sunday to light a coal fire in a vintage steam locomotive.
That engine – the Number 85 Merlin, named for a bird of prey – is kept in a shed.
The man kept the fire going for hours, to build up enough steam to churn the engine, its crew of 20, and a couple hundred passengers, into motion. The “fireman” shovelled coal all the way down to Rosslare, County Wexford and back.
He’s part of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (RPSI), a cross-border organisation that’s been around since 1964. Sunday’s trip was one of several that the RPSI runs every year, to different places around Ireland.
“A number of people in Northern Ireland said, ‘If we don’t do something about these steam engines, they’ll be cut up,’” says Kieran Comerford, a long-time member of RPSI.
So the RPSI saved the Merlin and others, and volunteers keep them going.
By 10:15am, there are people wandering into Connolly Station in full period dress – long, frilly skirts, bonnets. Not everyone is dressed like this, but some are.
Inside, a station employee stands at the turnstiles and points to the people dressed up.
“Follow them,” he says. There are no ordinary tickets for this train.
A light grey mist curls around platform 5 as people board the big blue Merlin. It looks exactly like Thomas the Tank Engine.
No, a five-year-old boy called Oscar Glynn says. That’s all wrong.
“It’s actually kind of like Gordon, and the coaches look like the express train that Gordon pulls,” says Oscar, on board today with his two grannies.
Oscar’s favourite part about today so far?
“Um, on the train. Of course, the train. I also saw the wheels,” he says.
Mad about trains
Comerford sits down in Carriage A as the train chugs out of the station at 10:35am, timed precisely, to avoid getting stuck behind a DART.
The Merlin is southbound on the DART line, hugging the Dublin coast.
Comerford, a retired electrical engineer, was “mad about trains” when he was young. He had a big train set.
“But I grew too old for it,” he says.
Now that he’s retired, he does maintenance on Thursdays with some other, mostly retired, RPSI members. The carriages are kept in the Inchicore Railway Works between uses.
He taps into the speedometer app on his phone. The Merlin is going 22 miles per hour now, but she’ll reach a top speed of 60. Modern trains travel between 70 and 100 miles per hour.
He knows every millimetre of this route, down to how many tunnels there are, how long they are, and where they used to be.
“We’re just coming into Bray now,” he says.
The train slows to a crawl in Bray and pulls up next to a DART at the station. A man inside snaps a photo and grins.
Comerford goes to check on the new PA system he installed last week.
An announcement: “All stewards ensure you’re at the doors because this is not a scheduled stop.” Comerford takes his place at the doors of Carriage A.
He’s a steward today, opening and closing the manual doors of the vintage carriage that was restored by RPSI members – new upholstery, wiring, paint, and brakes.
The wood-panelled buffet car and bar look a little more retro.
“It’s the only train in Ireland where you can get a pint of Guinness on draught,” Comerford says.
Standing close enough to the open window at the carriage doors, a passenger can hear the rhythmic oscillating of the pistons turning the wheels around. Then, every few minutes, the screech of the whistle.
At Wicklow town, the train turns inland, passing sloping fields of farmland.
The Merlin was delivered to the Great Northern Railway (GNR) in 1932 to work the Belfast-to-Dublin route. RPSI volunteers restored it to full working order.
This information was transmitted on Comerford’s new PA system at the start of the trip, but 18-year-old Jordan Olohan can recite it off by heart. “Big Blue” is his favourite.
“He’s a train man,” says his mum, Sandra Ryan. He’s a member of the RPSI and someday hopes to volunteer.
“We go on all the steam train trips that come down here,” says Gerry Kinsella, Ryan’s partner.
At the moment, Kinsella is building a miniature railroad outside an extension-in-progress to his house.
“It will be kind of a showpiece in the garden. Rather than having a water feature or a fountain, we’ll have a steam train,” he says.
Watering the Engine
The RPSI technicians do everything themselves – renovating and maintaining the fleet and operating them on the day. The driver, though, is an Iarnród Éireann employee, for insurance reasons.
“They get a bit dirty doing this,” Comerford says.
The crew has to “water the engine” every 50 miles. That means filling the 3,000-gallon tank under the coal.
There are watering stops in Avoca and Gorey, in both directions.
At the Gorey stop, the engine hisses while soot-covered men climb atop the coal and shovel it forward. Others attach the hose.
From Enniscorthy, the tracks run alongside the river Slaney.
The train’s next stop is Wexford town, where the Dublin crowd gets off and a new batch of passengers climb aboard.
The tracks go directly through the town, no barrier separating them from the road, or the footpath. The Merlin crawls through at five miles per hour.
“We only come here once or twice a year. It’s quite unusual,” Comerford says, as people line up a few feet away from the train, smartphones drawn.
After a short journey, the Merlin deposits its passengers at Rosslare Strand, while it and the crew continue on to Rosslare Europort. There, the locomotive spins around on a turntable and begins its journey north.
It’s Not a Toy
Cillian MacCraith, 11, liked Thomas when he was younger, but the main reason he’s here is his dad Colm.
Do you have a toy train set?
“My dad does, and sometimes I use it.”
Cillian’s dad, sat across the table, giggles. “It’s not a toy train set.”
“It is,” Cillian says. “You play with it.”
They have to stop talking while the engine lets off some steam with a screeching hiss.
“I like to do this trip every so often,” Cillian’s dad says.
At many of the stations on the way back up to Dublin, there are people outside, watching. Some have serious-looking camera equipment.
The Merlin passes a station, where a man is on all fours on the platform, fiddling with a tiny tripod.
“The enthusiasts know when the train will be passing. They know the schedule,” Comerford says.
On the beach north of Wicklow town, even dogs stop to stare.
Back at Connolly Station a little after 7:30pm, the passengers and most of the RPSI crew disembark.
A few have been on their feet all day, selling raffle tickets and merchandise – pictures of trains, DVDs of trains, calendars of trains, railway books – to fund the diesel engine they’re doing up. The calendars have sold out.
“We’re providing fun as well as selling nostalgia,” says founding member John Richardson, who has been at this since 1964. The retired banker was the RPSI’s treasurer for its first 25 years.
Richardson left Carrickfergus at 5:15am to get here. Now he’s rolling his handcart full of empty bags that had been stuffed with raffle prizes earlier in the day. He’ll catch a bus to Belfast at Busáras, then get a taxi home.
Richardson didn’t have a train set when he was small, but he remembers his dad taking him to see a steam train in the 1940s.
“That unique mixture of smoke, oil, and steam got me hooked … It’s in your DNA,” he says.