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Taking a journey fuelled by nostalgia

A long time fascination with trains since childhood helped shape the future career path for Nicky Cox. Today, he explains to Mary Fogarty the path he took to surround himself with train mechanics and engines

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Steam train stops at Wicklow Train Station, May 2019. Wicklow man steam train driver Connie O’Gara and Nicky Cox (left)

Steam train stops at Wicklow Train Station, May 2019. Wicklow man steam train driver Connie O’Gara and Nicky Cox (left)

Steam train stops at Wicklow Train Station, May 2019. Wicklow man steam train driver Connie O’Gara and Nicky Cox (left)

Nicky Cox from Greystones has had a fascination for trains ever since he enjoyed 'Thomas the Tank Engine' as a young boy, and saw the steam train pull into his home town train station on occasion throughout his childhood.

Today, Nicky is the youngest member of the Dublin management committee at 25.

Nicky said that the RPSI is an all-Ireland society, with committees in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

'There are committees in the north and the south to discuss what trains to run through the year, safety matters, and maintenance on locomotives and carriages.

Some of his fellow members are retired people who find themselves with time to devote to their passion, the rest of the group are a mix of ages.

'We run trains all over Ireland,' said Nicky. 'They are the bread and butter trips, things local to Dublin, shuttles Dublin to Maynooth or Dublin to Bray,' he said. There are also longer trips taking a full day, such as the Sea Breeze trip to Wexford and back.

'My own interest definitely goes back to Thomas,' said Nicky. 'When I was a kid there was a regular Dublin to Greystones train, before the Dart came to Greystones. Mum used to bring us down. Combine that with Thomas and I got addicted! It used to run pretty much every year, with at least one trip or even two or three to Greystones.'

After Nicky was around 12, he noticed that the train wasn't coming to Greystones any more. 'It got me asking the question, where are they?'

He started googling about who owned the steam trains, in a mission to find out why they hadn't been appearing locally. 'Mum always thought Irish Rail owned them and sent them out as a heritage thing. It turned out to be the RPSI. I found out that it was all done on a voluntary basis and I asked them, when I was 14, how I could go about volunteering.'

He sent an email and received a reply thanking him for his interest, but unfortunately he would have to be 18, or 16 if he came with his parents.

'My dad would have loved to but he's self-employed so wouldn't have free time and my mum didn't have the interest. So I wrote back and said I would wait until I was 18.'

It was no flash in the pan for the youngster, who signed up as soon as he reached the age of majority.

'I had kept my foot in the door before that,' he said. 'I was a student at the time so if I could afford to, I would travel on shorter journeys. I used to go out with a video camera and film the trains. I found out over the years that they remembered the young lad with the silver tripod.'

It was no surprise that young lad grew up to be an engineer. What fascinates him about the trains is their mechanics and how the engines work. 'With steam trains in particular, you see all the motion and moving parts from the outside,' he said. 'There's the noise, the smells the sounds, and they're just aesthetically pleasing, they're nice to look at. Some people say they're romantic, but for me it's the mechanics of it.'

As well as being a member of the RPSI, Nicky goes on his 'busman's holiday' to the Tallyllyn Railway in Wales, and also joined the Stradbally Woodland Railway. 'I joined all three the same year,' he said. 'With all three what kept me going was the social life, you make friends. At the start it was "I can't wait to see such and such an engine", now I can't wait to see my friends.'

When he goes to Wales he can put himself down to work on a particular section, for example locomotive, guard, signals. 'It depends on your particular interest,' said Nicky. In Ireland there's a smaller population and it's 'all hands on deck'. So Nicky has had a hand in all aspects of running a steam train.

He said that the boiler had to be lit up overnight to get heat into the engine to boil the water. He would also maybe help the carriage crew fill the tanks for the toilets.

For overnight duty, there is a 'buddy system' so two volunteers would man the station all night. 'If there was an accident for example, the other person could call the ambulance,' said Nicky. 'While it's enjoyable, we do take safety very seriously.'

The members are all volunteers and their fundraising and ticket sales go towards expenses, and paying the driver, fireman and guard.

'They work on Irish Rail trains every day so they know the route, where the train stops, how many miles between tunnels,' he said. '

Running a steam train is hard work, and can be dirty work, but everyone involved has a passion for the vehicles.

'When the society started out originally in 1964, the passengers were more older people, taking trips for the sake of nostalgia. Nowadays, 90 per cent of the passengers are families on a day out. We do get a nice mix, and our fair share of Thomas the Tank Engine fans.'

They do chargers every now and then for holiday companies, with UK based 'Steam Dreams UK'. A group of around 200 people will travel to different locations each day by train, taking in Killarney, Galway and Westport, with overnight stays at each location and coach tours while there.

'You do see quite a bit of the country,' said Nicky. The day trip to Wexford and back includes around three hours each way of travelling, with stops to take on water and rake out the fire, so it takes a full day, with a stop in Wexford for a few hours.

The administration of the journey includes ensuring they will have a source of water, and the use of the tracks.

'There's a lot to consider,' said Nicky. 'Sometimes it's not logistically possible to go somewhere.' He said that the engines usually can't go backwards, so they need a turntable. 'There's one in Rosslare, and a triangle in Kilkenny,' said Nicky.

For now, the engines are parked up. 'How long is a piece of string,' said Nicky, when asked when they expect to be back. 'We would be stage five so all things going well, August hopefully. We will have to introduce social distancing, so the capacity on each journey will be reduced.'

The popular train trips usually sell out. To help increase income, for buying new stock, maintaining what they have, and paying for costs, they may be able to run more of the shorter journeys.

It was coming up to St Patrick's weekend that the RPSI began to cancel scheduled journeys. There were trips planned that weekend and Easter Monday which had to be cancelled.

RPSI colleagues from the north also had to cancel a weekend to their friends in the south this month.

At the moment, there are security checks under way and someone runs the generator once or twice a week. Other than that there is no activity. 'Hopefully when we return the programme will be successful'.

Nicky's favourite engine is 'Number 4'. 'It's a very easy engine for maintenance,' he said. 'There is a knack to shovelling coal on and it's easy to fire and drive, it's crew friendly. Because it's a tank engine, it's all one machine and can run as fast in reverse as forward. There aren't any issues running in reverse. So logistically, it's a good engine to plan.' Number four also looks nice.

'When I started, we were working on a carriage called 1508 for around three or four years,' said Nicky. 'It was a snack car we bought by Irish Rail in 1964. We bought these carriages off Irish Rail when they were being taken out of service in 2006 and they all needed work.'

Nicky worked hard on 1508, along with the other volunteers. 'It was the first project I worked on and I have good memories of when we were doing it.'

He is missing everything involved with the RPSI, as well as his friends.

'Hopefully we will be able to do the Santa trains. If that didn't run it would be a big blow,' he said.

Go to: steamtrainsireland.com for more information on the trains.

Bray People