YEARS of tender loving care have restored a rare steam engine to life after decades of dereliction.
The engine, built in Nazi Germany, is one of just two which are believed to survive in Ireland, and it is lucky to be here at all after lying in a field for years.
But now its restoration is complete – just in time to carry passengers on Downpatrick and County Down Railway’s annual ‘Santa steam engine rides’ this weekend – although sadly it is likely to remain in gun-grey colour until after Christmas while any “gremlins” are worked out, said its operators.
The engine, called simply Number One, has taken around 20 years to restore and replaces a similar steam engine called Number Three, which had been running on the two-mile line but is now undergoing maintenance.
Number One is expected to carry passengers for the first time on Saturday.
It was built before the Second World War for the Irish Sugar Company in the Republic, which used it to ferry sugar beet. What followed was a string of “extraordinary occurrences”, according to shed foreman Robert Edwards, including an attempt to move the engine to England, followed by around 12 years spent lying in a field near Saintfield.
Mr Edwards, 64, from Saintfield, said it had lain derelict in Co Carlow probably since the late 1950s.
It was then bought by an English railway enthusiast. But the gauge (the distance between the wheels) was different to the English tracks, so it could not actually run.
“He’d bought a pig in a poke, so to speak,” said Mr Edwards, who has been instrumental in the restoration of the old engine.
Then it went to a group of local enthusiasts.
Only now, “with a lot of tender loving care”, is it back in working order.
It and its sister engine, called Number Three, are “the most highly-restored locomotives running in Ireland today”, he said.
“They were in a complete state of dereliction when they were received.”
The engine, believed to have been built in the mid-1930s, looks quite different to UK models, said Robert Gardiner, vice-chairman of the Downpatrick and County Down Railway.
Mr Gardiner, 33, and from Ballygowan, said: “The chimney, the shape of the tank, it’s very continental,” adding that they might resemble something from a war film. The reason?
“From a historical point of view, they are a legacy of partition,” he said.
“At that point, De Valera was engaged in ‘economic war’ with the UK, which meant they weren’t placing orders with UK companies.”
Instead the orders were placed with Germany – and at the time it was built, that meant Nazi Germany.
“Whenever we first got the locomotives, we got in touch with Orenstein and Koppel (the builders),” said Mr Gardiner.
“We said: ‘Would you have any of the original plans for this?’.”
He said it is believed their response was: “‘We would have – had your RAF not bombed our factories’.
He added: “That’s a tale that’s been doing the rounds for some considerable time.”
He also understands that somewhere an imprint of a Swastika had been found – although Mr Edwards has not seen one in the course of his work.
The coal-fired engine is limited to 25mph on the track, but Mr Edwards said “you could probably get 35mph”.
For Mr Edwards, who says he is “nominally retired”, the engines have a special significance.
He had always wanted to be a steam engine driver as a boy.
But, instead, he went into banking for 30-plus years.
Then, in an unusual career move, he retired from his job as a senior official about 15 years ago to work as a haulier, driving a 50-tonne lorry all over the British Isles.
“If you’ve pushed a pen and loaned money to people you get a bit fed up of it,” he said.
“I fancied something completely different.”
The railway runs for two miles from around Down Cathedral to Inch Abbey.
The Santa steam engine rides see families go from Downpatrick to a small station called The Loop, where there is a grotto.
The trips are between 2pm and 5pm on Saturdays and Sundays between now and Christmas.
Prices are £6 for adults, £9 for children over three, and £5.50 for children under three and senior concessions.