23rd March 1996 – “The Yankee Explorer” railtour


102 at Belfast Great Victoria Street, 23/03/96 (JW)

21 years ago today (at the time of writing!), I was fortunate enough to be a passenger on one of the most audacious railtours in history!

Formed in 1989, the Irish Traction Group had a long tradition of operating interesting enthusiast railtours in the Emerald Isle.  Saturday 23rd March 1996 was to see one of the most exciting.

The premise was simple – and brazen – it would travel from Dublin to Northern Ireland, use all of Northern Ireland Railways’ locomotive fleet – then go back!  And it almost succeeded.

I was only 7 years old at the time (hence the dodgy photography on my part!) but had already spent a lot of time on the Irish railways with my Dad and had developed a keen interest bordering on obsession!  This tour was therefore not one to be missed, as it fell firmly into the “unrepeatable” category.


102 awaits departure from Belfast Great Victoria Street (Julian Mandeville)

To give a bit of historical context, most of my schoolfriends and – particularly – my teachers were gobsmacked that I was travelling to Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s.  Belfast was a place that most people in Worcestershire had only ever seen on the 6 o’clock news, and tended to associate it with guns, bombs and barricades.  Indeed, just six weeks before this railtour, an IRA bomb had exploded in London’s Docklands area, ending the ceasefire.  However, it really does need saying that in a quarter of a century of visiting the Six Counties, my experience has been only of a beautiful part of the world inhabited by friendly people – and so it proved again on this day.

Northern Ireland Railways at the time had six locomotives in their operational fleet: one “Hunslet” 101 Class (no.102), the three machines of the 111 Class (nos.111-113) and two brand new 208 Class locos (208 and 209).  The plan was as follows:-

Unspecified traction Dublin Heuston – Islandbridge Junction
NIR 111 Class Islandbridge Junction – Bray (reverse) – Portadown
2 x NIR 111 Class Portadown – Lisburn
2 x IE 121 Class Lisburn – Derry (reverse) – Lisburn – Belfast Great Victoria Street
NIR 101 Class Belfast Great Victoria Street – Belfast Central
2 x NIR 208 Class Belfast Central – York Road (reverse) – Portadown
NIR 208 Class Portadown – Dublin Connolly
IE 071 Class Dublin Connolly – Bray (reverse) – Islandbridge Junction
Unspecified traction Islandbridge Junction – Dublin Heuston

The three 111 Class machines entered traffic in the early 1980s (111 and 112 in 1981, followed by 113 in 1984), to an identical design to the enormously successful 18-strong Córas Iompair Éireann 071 Class which had dated from 1977; 90mph, 2,475hp General Motors Co-Cos with 12-cylinder 645-series engines.  These plied their trade relentlessly on the cross-border expresses between Belfast and Dublin, but as of summer 1995, were usurped by the brand new 208 Class and pushed onto freight and civils work.They say in Ireland that it rains for 15 minutes every quarter of an hour, and this day dawned no differently, as 141 Class Bo-Bo GM no.170 performed the short manoeuvre out of the terminus station of Dublin Heuston as far as Islandbridge Junction.  From here, Northern Ireland Railways 111 Class loco no.112 took over, running via the then-freight only route through Phoenix Park Tunnel to Dublin Connolly, Dun Laoghaire (to collect a load of bleary-eyed cranks who had arrived on the overnight ferry from Holyhead) and Bray.  There it ran round to begin the journey to north.

As a result, 111 Class power across the border was beginning to get quite rare, so was something to be savoured.  112 had always been my favourite Northern Irish loco, so I was pleased that it was doing the distance work on this day, and it noisily but effortlessly did its job, exactly as it had been built to do and exactly as it had done for most of its life.

One of the true highlights of the day was to follow.  All of the “traditional” GM diesels in Ireland could work in multiple with each other, but this was banned for any of the six-axle machines south of the border.  However, it was permitted in Northern Ireland.  Previous ITG railtours both in 1990 had seen the two class leaders, 071 and 111, work together, as well as 111+113, and the “Yankee Explorer” was to repeat the feat – two 111s in multi, admittedly only for the 18 miles from Portadown to Lisburn, but enough to make a lasting impression – what a run it was, with some awesome acceleration!

Unfortunately, 113 was out of traffic for the weekend, under repair at York Road depot in Belfast, so we were thwarted in the attempt to use all of NIR’s traction – just 111 ran light engine to Portadown to pair up with 112, rather than 111+113 to replace it.

On arrival at Lisburn, we said goodbye to the big engines and gained a pair of the elderly single-cab IÉ 121 Class Bo-Bos – 130 and 135 – for a journey via the now-closed line through Crumlin to Antrim, Coleraine and along the stunningly scenic coastal route to Derry.  After about three-quarters of an hour in the Maiden City – enough to take some photos of the locos running round but not much else! – we set off, retracing our steps back to Lisburn and then through to the terminus of Belfast Great Victoria Street.


130 and 135 at Lisburn, 23/03/96 (Julian Mandeville)

This station had only reopened 6 months previously, having been closed for 19 years.  1976 had seen Belfast finally gain a cross-city railway line, with the termini of Queens Quay (of the former Belfast & County Down Railway) and Great Victoria Street (of the former Great Northern Railway) being closed in favour of a new route through the newly-built but distinctly un-central Belfast Central station.  As such, this was the first time that many of the tour’s participants – including me – had been there.

There was something far more exciting to look at than the brand new station and transport interchange, though – chirping away to itself in Platform 4 was a pristine no.102.

In concept, the 101 Class were essentially the predecessors of the 111s.  Again a class of three machines, these 1,350hp English Electric 8CSVT machines were built by Hunslet in Leeds in 1970 to work the “Enterprise” express trains between Belfast and Dublin.  Once replaced by the 111s on these duties, they worked push-pull suburban trains and non-passenger work.  103 fell by the wayside in 1989, followed by 101 itself in 1993, leaving 102 as the sole survivor in service – it was clear that it did not have a long future ahead of it.


102 where it resides today – in the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum at Cultra.  30/05/16 (Nicola Elsden)

It’s fair to say that the 1.8-mile canter through the city suburbs did not tax the old girl, which was the exact point, but it allowed the train’s happy participants to say “I was there” for what I believe was the last time a member of this class ever hauled a passenger-carrying train.  This video of an earlier ITG railtour on YouTube contains some good quality audio of no.101 at work, which sadly is probably the closest you will come to hearing an NIR Hunslet for the foreseeable future.

Incidentally, we saw all three of the class during the day – 101 was visible stored at Adelaide, and 103 was seen awaiting scrapping at Ballymena.  Sadly, we were just two months too late to see Metro-Vick no.107 at Ballymena – it had been scrapped in the January – and the cutter’s torch awaited 103 less than a year later.  102 soldiered on until 1998.  Both it and 101 were bought by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland; 101 was scrapped for spares in early 2010, just shy of its 40th birthday, and 102 was sold to the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum in Cultra, to where it was taken in January 2012 and remains on display today.

On arrival at Belfast Central, we lost NIR’s oldest traction and gained its newest!  The 208 Class were an oddity – 34 mechanically identical locomotives arrived in the Emerald Isle in 1994/95; nos.201 to 207 and 210 to 234 were painted orange and formed Iarnród Éireann’s 201 Class, whereas nos.208 and 209 were blue and formed Northern Ireland Railways’ 208 Class.

These 100mph, 3,200hp GM machines essentially replaced the 111s on the cross-border expresses and were less than a year old at the time that this tour ran.  These were able to work in multi with members of same class; therefore, obviously this tour was going to use that capability!

As an aside, the fact that agreement had been reached that both 208s could be on the railtour at the same time meant that something else would have to be found for the evening Belfast-Dublin service train.  Step forward 130 and 135!  Many railtour participants therefore alighted to travel back to Dublin with them, and by all accounts, they experienced a blistering run with the pair of little engines.  However, they missed a treat the with pair of big ones.

It must be said that the 201s/208s were fairly unpopular with enthusiasts at the time – perhaps predictably, as they were replacing well-loved machines on the crack expresses and neither looked or sounded anywhere near as good – but also with railwaymen and, apparently, GM themselves, all of whom would have preferred another 34 “071s” instead.  However, these fresh-out-of-the-box machines absolutely stormed back up the main line to Portadown; with 6,400hp through one handle, it was always going to be brisk!  Indeed, I’m not sure the carriages liked it very much, and indeed this has not been repeated.  208 took us forward on its own to Dublin.

Back in Éire, we lost the blue engines for the day and gained 071 Class machine no.081, which took us to Bray and back to Islandbridge and, after the usual Bo-Bo drag back into Heuston, the end of a fantastic, never-to-be-repeated day out.

Incidentally, I did travel behind no.113 in 1996 – thereby completing my own personal “set” for the year – but I had to wait until 28th December, and the MRSI’s “Three Loughs” railtour, to do it!  That, however, is a story for another day…

I remain indebted to the ITG for operating some of the finest railtours that I have travelled on.  Although they ran their last charter (to date) in 2010, their work continues in earnest in the field of preservation.  They own a total of 13 locomotives, 4 of which are operational at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway in Northern Ireland.  I can wholeheartedly recommend a trip there when the diesels are running; although it will never be the same as experiencing these machines on the main line, we are lucky that they are still here for us to enjoy at all.


My sincere thanks to Julian for the use of two of his excellent photos, which are far better than anything I could have managed!

6 thoughts on “23rd March 1996 – “The Yankee Explorer” railtour

  1. Good account of the ITG tour. 209+208 worked from Belfast Central to York Road (run round) then to Portadown. 208 then took us to Dublin and was replaced there by 081 which worked to Bray (run round in loop) and then to Islandbridge Junction from where 170 hauled the train into Heuston


  2. Good account of the ITG tour 208+209 worked to Portadown only. From there 208 took us to Dublin where it was replaced by 081 which worked to Bray (run round in loop) and from there to Islandbridge Junction. 170 then hauled us into Heuston

    Liked by 1 person

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