Northern Ireland's steam train heritage gets highest esteem at national awards

'There's bubbly at six o'clock,' repeated the smiling gentleman welcoming a constant flow of people into the grand reception hall of Birmingham's MacDonald Burlington Hotel.

Wednesday, 14th February 2018, 9:24 am
Updated Wednesday, 14th February 2018, 9:28 am
Whitehead's winners: Left to right, Peter Scott, RPSI locomotive department, Lord Berkeley, Canon John McKegney, RPSI chairman and Robin Morton, RPSI events convenor

Behind him was a handsome, glass-panelled door and a tall, red, white and blue sign-board announcing – ‘Annual Awards. HRA’.

There was an eye-catching silhouette on the board of an old steam train, complete with funnel, pistons and buffers.

It almost looked chuffed!

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Whitehead's HRA award

“Unaccustomed as I am to wearing a tie,” said a white-bearded gent, obviously uncomfortable in a suit, waiting for the door to be opened into the Heritage Railway Association’s glitzy awards ceremony last Saturday evening.

“Our biggest problem is the track’s too tight,” he said to a similarly uncomfortable-looking awards guest.

They were killing time discussing old railways and both would have been happier in oil- and grease-smeared overalls, restoring their much-loved steam-engines!

They were amongst several hundred railway heritage enthusiasts hoping to hear that they were one of the eleven category-winning projects chosen by the HRA from all over the UK and Ireland – the ‘Oscars’ of steam!

Headhunters runners up. Left to right, Alan Devers, Nigel and Selwyn Johnston

HRA is a voluntary-run trade association representing heritage and tourist railways, related museums, tramways, cliff lifts, railway preservation groups and other organisations connected with old trains and railways.

Over 180 of their affiliated visitor-attractions across the UK and Ireland are regularly open to the public.

HRA boasts a total of over 300 corporate members.

Saturday night’s ceremony is one of the highlights of HRA’s busy calendar, when groups and organisations that have “performed spectacularly well” during the previous year are recognised by both the HRA and the editors of the UK’s four main railway magazines.

Whitehead's HRA award

There are awards small groups, large organisations and individuals – for preservation, for outstanding achievement, for locomotive engineering and for the most innovative railway museums.

Roamer was the only privileged outsider at this inner sanctum of steam because two organisations from Northern Ireland were nominated for awards – Whitehead’s Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (RPSI) and Headhunters Railway Museum.

RPSI was one of two organisations nominated for the coveted Manisty Award for Excellence – in memory of Captain Peter F Manisty MBE, DSC, RN, a founding member of the British railway preservation movement and for 40 years the chairman of the Association of Railway Preservation Societies.

Enniskillen’s Headhunters Museum, unique for its fully functioning barber-shop venue, was nominated with two other heritage organisations for Outstanding Achievement.

Headhunters runners up. Left to right, Alan Devers, Nigel and Selwyn Johnston

From as far afield as the Lake District’s Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, the West Highland’s Glenfinnan Station Museum and South Wales’ Gwili Steam Railway, the Northern Ireland nominees took their seats around table number two of 19 meticulously set, vast circular tables.

Table number one boasted HRA’s chairman Brian Simpson OBE and guest speaker Lord Berkeley OBE.

Lord Berkeley, who joined the House of Lords in 1992 and served as opposition spokesman for transport, is a board member of the European Rail Freight Association, chairman of the Rail Freight Group and was public affairs manager for Eurotunnel.

The leading lights from Enniskillen’s Headhunters Museum and Whitehead’s RPSI sat with House of Lords deputy speaker and deputy chairman of committees Lord Faulkner of Worcester, the president of HRA.

Headhunters’ Selwyn Johnston greeted him at the pre-dinner champagne reception.

“I believe you’re joining us at the Irish table,” said Selwyn.

“I asked to!” said Lord Faulkner, smiling broadly.

After their scrumptious dinner the guests and the great and the good settled back for speeches and the presentation of awards, but not before HRA chairman Brian Simpson OBE called for an additional loyal toast “to the president of the Republic of Ireland, because of our Irish guests”.

Guest speaker Lord Berkeley OBE humbly back-referenced Lord Faulkner’s glowing introduction – “I do what I think is right” – and called for the re-opening and reuse of branch line railways.

Lord Berkeley spoke critically on the economy of today’s massive railway projects – “we’ve got to get the cost down, we really do.”

A number of the railway organisations at the ceremony ran lines that co-ordinated with Network Rail.

“I really hope that you will continue in the way that you are doing now,” said Lord Berkeley.

Then came the awards, to nearly 30 nominated railway heritage organisations with a breathtakingly wide variety of tracks, trains, museums and visitor attractions…and a wide variety of members, young and old.

There’ll be more about these groups of enthusiasts and their railways on Roamer’s page soon – meanwhile, all our congratulations go to Whitehead Railway Museum which landed a top honour.

Whitehead’s museum was judged to be a dead heat with the Swanage Railway in Dorset, so the judges decided, in an unprecedented move, to award two Manisty Awards!

And Enniskillen’s Headhunters Museum was awarded runner up in the Outstanding Achievement category.

Lord Faulkner said: “This is recognition of the contribution made by RPSI and Whitehead Railway Museum to railway heritage in Ireland and a tribute to all their volunteers.”

Canon John McKegney, the RPSI chairman, said they were delighted to get such a prestigious accolade.

“We are thrilled to have received a cherished Manisty Award and look forward to showing it off back at Whitehead. It is always particularly rewarding to receive recognition from a peer group.”

There’ll be a further report from Birmingham shortly, meanwhile there’s full information about Whitehead’s museum at and Headhunters is at