Funds put rail attraction on track
Plans for a new railway visitor centre in Co Antrim are building up steam after it secured a £2.4 million funding boost.
The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (RPSI) wants to develop its existing depot in Whitehead, which houses 10 steam engines, into a major tourist attraction.
The Whitehead 2020 project has received funding offers from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the EU-backed Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme (NIRDP).
The lottery has committed £1.6 million to the scheme, while £800,000 is being provided by NIRDP through the administrative body GROW - Generating Rural Opportunities within South Antrim. As well as the 10 steam locomotives, the society also has a collection of historic carriages and wagons formerly used on railway systems throughout Ireland from the 1880s to the 1980s.
Funding from GROW has already enabled the construction of a new station building on the platform, which is set to open in the summer. Denis Grimshaw, the RPSI vice-chairman, welcomed the funding commitment, describing it as a "red-letter day" for the society.
"Whitehead is already the only operational mainline steam depot in Ireland, and this working museum and heritage centre will complement the important static display at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Cultra," he said.
"Visitors to our centre will be able to see engines and carriages undergoing restoration - as well as taking a trip on our steam trains from Whitehead to destinations such as Portrush, Bangor and Dublin."
He added: "This funding will go towards vastly enhanced visitor facilities including a small exhibits museum, a workshop viewing gallery, a historic carriage exhibition building, interactive displays, an extension to our workshops and a locomotive turntable."
Mr Grimshaw said the society hoped to secure another major grant in the coming weeks. He said the timetable for opening the new museum was late 2014, adding: "Our aim is to create further employment, including apprenticeships, and promote the passing on of valuable industrial heritage skills to the next generation."
Paul Mullan, head of HLF Northern Ireland, said: "This project will secure the railway heritage in Ireland for generations by enhancing the conservation and engineering facilities at the RPSI's accredited Museum in Whitehead. The improved visitor facilities will draw more people into the Whitehead area to view and learn about our railway heritage."