Roamer: The end of the line for railway stations

The Last days of the Derry Road by David Briggs
The Last days of the Derry Road by David Briggs

Friday the 13th has shown its mettle with the sudden realisation that I’ve borne a grudge against Lord Beeching for over 50 years when in fact I should have focused my displeasure on Stormont! What a waste, and today I offer my apologies posthumously to His Lordship.

His 1963 Beeching Report led to thousands of railway stations and hundreds of lines being axed. Around that time a wee Roamer was setting off by train for a country holiday.

My luggage included my beloved, brand new bicycle “with straight handles and a (very anti-social!) horn” I boasted tirelessly!

Enniskillen railway station, the closest to my childhood home, was shut down, but Omagh’s was still in operation.

The journey there began with my bike in the boot of dad’s car which wasn’t big enough so the bike’s front wheel and handlebars protruded from the half closed boot.

Dad reversed out of our drive but, unused to the extended rear load, he crunched my beloved bike against a wall.

I glumly greeted the buckled wreckage by blaming Beeching for closing Enniskillen station!

But amongst the various communications I’ve received about tomorrow’s 50th anniversary of the closure of Omagh Station in 1965 there’s a mention of Enniskillen Station closing in 1957, some eight years previously.

The decision was made in Stormont so my half a century of repudiation was wrongly targeted!

Tomorrow in Omagh Library a commemoration of the closure of the Derry Road will pay homage to a proud era of steam, and to the Portadown/Derry route - the endearingly named Derry Road - that ended on St Valentine’s Day in 1965.

Since I mentioned this sad anniversary last week some evocative memories were e-mailed to Roamer, along with a beautiful commemorative painting by Lisburn artist David Briggs, a Member of the Guild of Railway Artists.

David’s canvas, entitled the Last days of the Derry Road, will be displayed in Omagh tomorrow with his explanatory narrative.

“On a squally morning late 1964 a B.U.T. (British United Traction train manufacturer) railcar set in the livery of the Ulster Transport Authority stops at Omagh station County Tyrone.”

The railcar, Number 134, was pausing on its journey from Londonderry to Belfast during the last days of the route, and David explains that an old steam engine “simmers in the bay platform having brought in the overnight goods from Portadown.”

Rail users and particularly railway workers were broken hearted when the Derry Road closed on St. Valentine’s Day and today the mythical pot at the end of David Briggs’ rainbow is filled with a treasure of golden memories.

“My first experience of the railway to Omagh was at the age of five,” Helen Long recalls. “On a cold spring morning in 1954, my mother, younger sister and I were travelling from Belfast to join my father in our new home in Carrickmore.”

The train wasn’t scheduled to stop in Carrickmore, but they were saved the trouble of a taxi from Omagh because Helen’s sister was smitten with travel sickness “and the train driver kindly made an exception, enabling us to disembark at Carrickmore with minimum inconvenience.”

Thereafter, Helen’s family often used the Derry Road. “That magical railway exuded an air of mystery and adventure, as it carried us off, away from the familiar fields of Tyrone and into a world of fantasy where absolutely anything was possible!”

Retired engine driver Jimmy Donnelly was fireman on the Derry Road’s last scheduled goods train. Barney Vallelly was driving the D-Class steam engine and Bertie Lyttle was guardsman.

“We brought the train to Portadown,” 84-year-old Jimmy told Roamer “I remember it well. It was the end of an era for me. We stopped at most of the stations and said out farewells.”

Mr Donnelly was a fireman from 1948, later becoming a driver. There was no telephone system during his early days on the Derry Road so they devised an innovative communications procedure between engine and station!

“As we approached a signal box I’d write a note and wrap it around a piece of coal. We’d blow the steam-whistle to alert the signalman, throw the coal with the attached message out to him and he caught it as we passed.”

One of those many signal boxes was called the North Cabin, a greatly cherished and hugely important ‘cog’ in a complicated railway ‘machine’. Patrick Devine was its signalman.

His son John Devine has kept his father’s curiously named signal repeater “since the family home was sold in Omagh many years ago.”

The repeater, currently in a cabinet in John’s Bangor home, looks a little bit like a square clock with curious dark, metal hands.

Instead of numbers on its face are the three words, ‘on’ and ‘off’ and in between them - rather ominously but with tremendous logic - ‘wrong’!

John reckons it was some kind of safety device ensuring that the signals were correctly positioned.

“I reckon my father took it as a souvenir on the day the railway closed down,” Mr Devine told Roamer. “He had been a signal man in the North Cabin for many years and found compulsory retirement very difficult to deal with and finding work nigh impossible.”

“Most of us then knew that what was being done was crass but the real absence of infrastructure west of the Bann affecting economic growth is only now being seriously understood.”

Tomorrow’s entrance-free commemoration event in Omagh Library, with films, talks and displays, runs between 10am and 5pm.