Brexit Busting Dash To Rescue Railway Carriage


With the continued uncertainty over just what will happen after the 29 March regarding Brexit, the Downpatrick and County Down Railway has rushed to transport a heritage railway carriage over the border this week.

Railway chairman, Robert Gardiner said: “Our latest acquisition of stock, CIÉ 638a, arrived at Downpatrick Station from Inchicore Works at around 8am on Tuesday. This is the last Irish-built item of coaching stock on Irish Rail’s service books, marking the end of a tradition of mainline railways operating locally-constructed carriages which dates back to the 1830’s.

“However, because of the uncertainty over what border controls are or are not going to be implemented – and certainly no-one has likely considered just what you need to do in order to import a veteran railway carriage into Northern Ireland, we worked flat out to ensure we brought the vehicle to Downpatrick before the Brexit deadline – we didn’t particularly like the idea of smuggling a railway carriage across the border!

Delivered. A new carriage arrives at the Downpatrick railway station. Pictured is Robert Gardiner, DCDR chairman.

“As with all our moves, a specialist railway vehicle haulier – Reid Freight Services – had to be brought in from England in order to do the moves and for him, travelling from Holyhead, it would have meant crossing the UK-Ireland border four times – adding more potential delays and costs. ”

The unique carriage, No. 638a, is the last survivor of a class of carriage that were colloquially known as a ‘tin van’, as the series were one of the first of their type to receive aluminium panelling.  It is hoped that the vehicle can be used to improve wheelchair access on the DCDR trains, as well as train crew facilities.

The carriage was built in Inchicore, Dublin, as a Travelling Post Office No 2971 to the design of renowned railway engineer OVS Bullied in 1956. They were 30-feet long and had only four wheels on a rigid frame, compared to more modern, longer carriages.

Mr Gardiner added: “We are told by those old railway hands that remember them in service that the shorter wheelbase led to some ‘lively’ riding at high speeds – but the postal workers on board preferred slower engines anyway, as they didn’t have to work as fast to get their mail sorted on time!

The former postal carriage arrives from the ROI – just in time before a possible Brexit! 

“Although they had limited capacity compared to other TPO’s, these smaller examples were still used extensively on mail routes across the CIÉ network until around the 1970’s. Two or three postal workers would have travelled on the van sorting letters and parcels from across the country into their respective ‘pigeon-holes’ on the wall without windows for delivery. Mail bags were then dropped off at the appropriate stations for forwarding to their final destination.

“With the fall in postal traffic, No. 2971 was granted a new lease of life following withdrawal from revenue service, becoming a Permanent Way departmental unit, No. 638a, and was extensively used for Irish Rail track team accommodation – the evidence of which still litters the interior.

“It really is a pre-millennium time capsule – inside we found bunk-beds, old calendars and diaries from 1999, and even an old green screen computer monitor. Since then, the carriage lay out of use in Dublin’s Heuston station before being moved to Inchicore late last year.

“With this unique piece of history now safely preserved at Downpatrick, we plan to put her to good use on our passenger trains for the public to enjoy. We want to convert 638a to wheelchair-accommodation coach with guard and maybe even electricity-generating capacity if possible. We have a lot of work to do, however – including clearing out twenty years’ worth of junk and weeds from the interior before the conversion can start.

“Although this is another project added to the list, we’re all breathing a sigh of relief now that she’s safely at Downpatrick after many years of uncertainty at Heuston. That’s another historic item of stock in our care for the enjoyment of future generations. Phew!”

If you are interested in joining the DCDR’s carriage team and lending a hand with this conversion, get in touch with the DCDR on 028 4461 5779 or online via: or