Carrick train driver’s Royal seal of approval

Train driver Noel Playfair.  Picture by Chris Playfair.  INCT 26-737-CON

Train driver Noel Playfair. Picture by Chris Playfair. INCT 26-737-CON

A Carrick man has described transporting the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh during their Northern Ireland visit as the “pinnacle” of his career.

Noel Playfair has been working for Northern Ireland Railways for 38 years, including 33 as a train driver.

Noel in his work uniform.  INCT 26-736-CON

Noel in his work uniform. INCT 26-736-CON

And the Castlemara man had the honour of operating the steam locomotive which carried the Royal visitors from Coleraine to Bellarena on Tuesday afternoon.

Speaking to the Times on Monday, Noel said he was “excited but nervous” over the prospect of meeting the high profile passengers.

“I’ve been driving steam trains since 1987 and I’ve had celebrities like George Best and Michael Palin on board before, but it’s not every day you get the Queen as a passenger.

“It doesn’t get any bigger than that,” he added.

Her Majesty The Queen visits the north Antrim coast on the second day of their visit to Northern Ireland.  Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Her Majesty The Queen visits the north Antrim coast on the second day of their visit to Northern Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

“I started out as a porter with a brush in my hand at Carrickfergus Railway Station in 1979, and I never thought years down the line that I’d be doing this.

“It’s the pinnacle of my career.”

The short trip from Coleraine to Bellarena used the iconic No. 85 Merlin steam engine.

The locomotive was originally built for the Belfast to Dublin line and has been restored to working order by the Whitehead-based Railway Preservation Society Ireland.

The route re-created part of the journey that the Royal couple had undertaken in June 1953, when they travelled by steam train from Lisburn via Coleraine to Londonderry.

Merlin, which is owned by National Museums Northern Ireland, dates from 1932 and was hauling the Society’s Whitehead-based train of refurbished carriages, including a dining car.

Denis Grimshaw, RPSI chairman, said the Society was honoured to have been involved in conveying the Queen on its train during her visit.

“This is the first occasion upon which the Queen has travelled on one of our steam trains and we are delighted to have been able to make the train available for the Royal party. It is a red letter day for the RPSI,” he added.

“We have in the past carried Presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese on our trains from Dublin, but we have never before had a member of the Royal Family as a guest.”

Although the locomotive which hauled the royal train in 1953 has long ago been scrapped, two of the carriages from that train have survived and are now in the RPSI’s collection at Whitehead.

“The two carriages – former Great Northern Railway (Ireland) directors’ saloon No. 50 and former Ulster Transport Authority restaurant car No. 87 – will be key exhibits in a new £3.1m museum which we are opening at Whitehead early next year,” said Mr Grimshaw.

“We expect visitors to our museum to make a beeline to see these carriages when the facility opens to the public. We are very proud to have two ‘Royal train’ vehicles in our collection.”

Mr Grimshaw said the RPSI wished to express gratitude to Translink, which proposed the use of the steam train to the Society.

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh arrived in Northern Ireland on Monday afternoon for a two-day visit to the region as part of Her Majesty’s 90th birthday celebrations.

The trip was the third high profile Royal visit to Northern Ireland in a matter of weeks, and follows on from appearances by the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall and then the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

During the visit, Her Majesty officially opened the new train station at Bellarena.