Saturday 25 March 2017

Real-life Thomas the Tank Engine takes to Irish railways - with prices from €2,300pp

Emerald Isle Explorer

STEAM POWER: The Emerald Isle Explorer steam train arrives at Portarlington railway station
STEAM POWER: The Emerald Isle Explorer steam train arrives at Portarlington railway station
Craven Coaches, which will be pulled by vintage steam locomotives on the Emerald Isle Explorer.
The Emerald Isle Explorer. Steam Dreams is offering a week-long tour of Ireland by steam train this June. Photo: Finbarr O'Neill

Claire McCormack

A vintage steam train named The Emerald Isle Explorer is embarking on a week-long tour of Ireland - the longest excursion of its kind in the modern age.

Queen Elizabeth II's former bodyguard and a Buckingham Palace chef are among the 271 guests on board - mostly from the United States and Britain.

The luxurious locomotive, with an engine built in 1932, will pass through Dublin, Westmeath, Galway, Kerry and Kilkenny among other counties.

The Irish tour is being run by Steam Dreams - which also manage the UK's Cathedrals Express steam train - and hauled by vintage locomotives owned by The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (RPSI).

Over the past six months, the RPSI has carefully prepared and upgraded the train to meet the expectations of passengers.

Built in the 1960s, it has seven carriages. The emerald engine, aka the van, at the front is firing on around 50 miles per tonne of coal.

There are two first class Pullman-style carriages complete with private mahogany bar and serving draught Guinness. The other carriages are classed as Premier Dining and the more standard Craven Coaches (picture below).

All the tables are pristinely set with linen table cloths, crockery, Champagne flutes and decorative table lamps in the higher class transits.

Prices for the seven-day tour at the top end start at £2,900 (€4,000) and, at the bottom end, the cheapest seats are £1,695 (€2,300).

This includes five-star hotels with five-course meals, food on board, free drinks on the train and, for some, access to the private Pullman bar.

Craven Coach 1.jpg
A Craven coach on board the Emerald Isle Explorer

Settling into their premier carriage before departing Connolly Station, Richard and Linda Medcaf from Essex feel as though they've "stepping back in time".

"I love the steam, the sound of the whistle and the smell. It's lovely to sit in and eat and drink and enjoy good conversation with the countryside passing by," said Richard.

The couple, who have never been to the Republic of Ireland before, are impressed by the sheer size of the carriages and the character of the table settings.

Across from them, in Coach E, Alan and Linda Davison are just as excited.

"We're just going to sit back and watch the scenery go by, it's absolutely beautiful," said Linda, who surprised her husband with the trip for his birthday.

Bill and Mary Weltin from Watermeet, Michigan in the US, who have their own steam engine, are here to see Ireland and celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

"We have never been here before and the steam train is the only way to see it. I think this car is pretty cool and we've got the bar right beside us so we couldn't have asked for a better seat," he said.

Sitting back and enjoying a pint of Guinness in the Pullman bar, John Keohane, a former senior bodyguard for Queen Elizabeth II, says the trip is not just for railway enthusiasts.

"The romanticism of steam brings me back to my childhood and you don't have to be a train fanatic to appreciate travelling in style," he said.

"Yes, it costs money but if you're going to pay to go on holiday, why not do something that is interesting?" said Mr Keohane, who works for Thomas the Tank Engine in the UK in the role of Sir Topham Hatt aka The Fat Controller.

Whitehead - Credit to Finbarr O'Neill.jpg
Full steam ahead!

This Sunday, the luxurious locomotive travelledl from Galway city down along the West Coast, arriving in Killarney, Co Kerry at 5pm.

On Monday, they will take a trip from Killarney to Tralee before setting off for Waterford on Tuesday morning with a series of stops along the way including Limerick Junction and Clonmel, Co Tipperary.

Marcus Robertson, Steam Dreams' chairman and founder, said:

"It looks fantastic, I hadn't seen it until this morning and it's a great credit to the RPSI and all the work they have done".

"As long as the weather holds I think this will be the most popular trip ever," he said, signalling that the Explorer will return next year.

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