Photographs by Alasdair McBroom

Whitehead Railway Museum

What can it be that prompts a 16-year-old student to leave his warm bed at 4am on a chilly night and make tracks for Whitehead? When it comes to Jodie McKee, it is a love of trains – and steam trains in particular.

Jodie, a sixth-former at Belfast Boys’ Model School who is studying for AS and GCSE levels, has been bitten by the transport bug and it has developed from a fascination with buses to a keen interest in trains.

So much so that he has joined the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland and now spends much of his free time down at Whitehead. He is part of a growing squad of volunteers – including some females – who are busy at weekends keeping the age of steam alive.

So it was that Jodie found himself at 5am at Whitehead Railway Museum standing on the footplate and about to strike a match to light the fire on RPSI steam locomotive No. 461, a large green engine known in the trade as a Mogul because of its 2-6-0 wheel arrangement.

Raising Steam

No. 461, which was built in 1922 for the Dublin & South Eastern Railway, was due out later that day on the RPSI’s Broomstick Belle Hallowe’en special from Whitehead to Belfast and back – and as it was to be the engine’s first passenger run for a year, special care was being taken.

The early start is necessary because it takes around five to six hours to nurse the locomotive from an inanimate lump of metal to a hissing, bubbling, gurgling machine that is ready for the road. The process has to be done gently to avoid stresses and strains within the boiler.

Under the supervisory eye of RPSI driver and fellow volunteer David Orr (31) from Lisburn, Jodie was learning the ropes in one of his first “steam-raising” experiences. The fire is lit using oily rags and timber and once the flames catch, it is time to shovel on the first of many rounds of coal.

But before all that, the team check to make sure there is enough water in the boiler and coal in the tender. And as the boiler pressure rises, there is time to go round the locomotive with an oil can in time-honoured fashion, replenishing the oil cups that keep everything running smoothly.

Becoming A Volunteer

Asked what sparked his interest in buses and trains, Jodie says: “I have always lived facing the local bus terminus and from an early age I used to watch buses day in, day out so I was hooked. It was buses all over before trains came into the picture.”

But then Jodie heard about the RPSI through one of his pals who was already a volunteer coach marshal.

“I contacted the RPSI simply by filling out the application forms for membership and to become a volunteer,” he said. “I had always been nifty with my hands on the bus side of things and I was good at bodywork repair and maintenance.”

It’s a decision he has not regretted. He says: “Why do I come down to Whitehead before dawn to get a steam engine ready? I am dedicated and prepared to do everything and anything that makes me happy.”

“I have learnt a lot already from other steam-raisers and from drivers such as Dave.”

Passing on Skills

David Orr, who was schooling Jodie in the art of steam raising, is impressed by the new volunteer’s enthusiasm, aptitude and willingness to learn.

David, a father of two from Lisburn, who has himself been volunteering with the RPSI for 14 years, said: “Jodie is learning very quickly and he is already a valuable asset for the RPSI. He will need to undertake a steam-raising exam so that he is deemed competent.

“From the Society’s point of view it is vital that we can pass on these skills to the younger generation so that the RPSI steam trains can continue to provide enjoyment to the public.

“Being able to get involved in the operation of steam trains is a rare opportunity but something that is very rewarding, despite the occasional early start! I also enjoy working to restore locos in the workshops using traditional skills.”

“For me, railways are something of a life-long passion which was developed by my father from a very young age. We have family who worked for the LMS-NCC railway, so it must be in the blood.”

“I just tell myself, look who is going to have an extraordinary hobby on their CV!”

Heritage

David’s interest in railway heritage has also been a factor in his career – he is employed by an independent charity, Historic Royal Palaces, as a conservator at Hillsborough Castle. And he also volunteers by sitting on the board of Heritage Engineering Ireland, the RPSI’s engineering subsidiary at Whitehead.

“For me the challenge is getting the time at my time in life. I try to volunteer once a month down at Whitehead but it’s not always possible with family and work. That’s why it is essential that we start training more young people like Jodie. I know he will get as much fun out of this as I had when I was his age.”

Ambassador for the Future

Jodie welcomes the input from David and those in his age group. “The people at Whitehead are amazing and they are all willing to give me a hand if I am struggling. I started by cleaning engines and carriages and now I know how to check that a locomotive is fit for steam-raising.”

And Jodie is fast turning into an ambassador the RPSI and Whitehead Railway Museum. He says: “We need more people of my age group to join to help keep Ireland’s railway heritage alive for future generations to come.”

Factfile

The RPSI is based at Whitehead, from where it operates steam trains for the public. At weekends in December it will be running the Santa specials from Belfast to Whitehead.

The RPSI has developed Whitehead Railway Museum, an award-winning £4m visitor attraction with five galleries. The museum has been wrapped around the workshops where the engines and carriages are overhauled.

No. 461 lives at Whitehead Railway Museum where it is on display to the public when it is not out on the main line.

The Museum is open 10am-4pm Thursday-Saturday every week and RPSI volunteer guides offer conducted tours at 11am, 1pm and 2.30pm. Admission costs £7 for adults, £5 for children or £20 for a family of two adults, two children.

Central to the operation of the Museum is the Edwardian Tea Room, a period-style refreshment room which offers coffees, teas and freshly made lunches.

In 2015 the RPSI was presented with a Queen's Award for Voluntary Service in recognition of the role played by the Society's volunteers.

For further details about the RPSI and Whitehead Railway Museum see the website at www.steamtrainsireland.com and here you will find a link if you are interested in becoming a volunteer.