New South Down MP Chris Hazzard and MLA Emma Rogan visited the Downpatrick & County Down Railway last Saturday to see for themselves the exciting extension plans for the local heritage railway.
Mr Hazzard has described expansion plans for the Downpatrick Railway as an “absolute must” in growing tourism in the years ahead.
DCDR Chairman Robert Gardiner said: “We were delighted to host our new local representatives and to show them the behind-the-scenes work at the railway. He was of course Minister of Infrastructure at Stormont before his election as MP, in charge of both mainline and heritage railways, and was very interested in the potential of heritage railways as a tourism driver in the area.
“Knowing Mr Hazzard’s interest in the development of Greenways, we explained that many of the issues we’ve encountered as a pioneer in using former railway beds are common to developing these. This is a very scenic stretch of the railway and we look forward to seeing it open to passenger trains in the not-to-distant future.”
Mr Hazzard said: “For many years now the Downpatrick Railway Museum has brought growing numbers of visitors into Downpatrick to enjoy the sights and sounds of our unique railway heritage.
“But we have now reached a point that if we don’t invest in the greater vision for a major visitor attraction the local area will never realise the full potential of what is on our doorstep.
“There is absolutely no reason why the heritage Railway Museum in Downpatrick cannot compete with the likes of the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum in Cultra or the American Folk Park in Omagh.
“But it requires strategic investment and expansion now. With tourism increasingly becoming our strongest economic driver locally, the expansion of the Downpatrick Railway must be at the centre of what is on offer in East Down.
“In the months ahead I will be discussing the potential of expanding the existing railway lines with Council management, and indeed the opportunities to better utilise the legendary Viking burial site of Norwegian King, Magnus Barfoot which is located at the side of the railway.
The elected representatives were taken out on a light engine as far is currently possible to go on the Ballydugan Extension of the railway, seeing the investment that the railway has put in to this line to get it shovel ready for when remaining land issues are resolved.
Albert Hamilton, DCDR director with special responsibility for the Ballydugan Extension, also welcomed the visit and said: “As a trackbed landowner myself along this route, it’s great to see such interest in our plans from the public and elected representative alike.
“Extension of the Downpatrick & County Down Railway south is I believe a core element in the future tourism offering of this part of Co Down.”
South Down MLA Emma Rogan also added: “The small team of volunteers at the Railway Museum have done an incredible job in protecting and maintaining our local railway heritage in Downpatrick.
“They deserve huge credit for their efforts thus far, and we look forward to working with them in securing whatever support is required from government agencies to finally deliver their exciting vision for a world class visitor attraction in the heart of Downpatrick.”
When the railway was proposed in 1982 the intention was to restore the entire former Belfast & Co. Down Railway (BCDR) branch from Downpatrick to Ardglass in phases. However, in 1992 consultants from Down District Council visited the railway and made a series of recommendations that shaped the direction the railway would (literally) take. They recommended extending the line along the former Newcastle alignment to Ballydugan to encourage visitors to the Mill and the lake. They also recommended that the line should cross the Quoile River and Inch Abbey.
The Inch Abbey line was started in 1999 with the installation of the replacement Quoile Bridge and the completion of land negotiations for the necessary trackbed north of the Quoile, with the first passenger train ran to Inch Abbey in September 2004.
On the south side work had seen the line extended from the Loop Platform (which had been reached in 1987) to the grave of the Viking King Magnus Barefoot in 1995 and was continuing along the Newcastle line. However the DCDR only had access to about half of the line between the Loop and Ballydugan, but due to land acquisition issues has lain in semi-mothballed condition until these can be resolved.