Creating jobs and wealth in Derry has always been a struggle. During the 19th century, when garment manufacturing was the key industry, Derry was also a railway city. Rail was the main mode of travel and the city was the hub for a network of tracks which drew the people of the north west of Ireland together and connected them to the outside world through intercity lines to Belfast and Dublin. Today, in these times of recession and austerity, the battle for employment is just as arduous and Derry needs to sweat all of its assets in this campaign. In this article, MARK LUSBY, local heritage champion, argues that Derry’s unique railway heritage is such an asset.
As a result of the Troubles and subsequent regeneration, uniquely, Derry is now the only city in Northern Ireland with two surviving Victorian railway terminal stations: the Old Waterside Railway Station, on Duke Street, and the Victoria Road Railway Terminus.
Both stations are quite intact in spite of their buildings being converted for other commercial purposes down through the years since trains stopped using them.
Derry’s other unique railway heritage asset is the collection currently housed in the Foyle Valley Railway Museum, consisting of two steam engines, a rail-car, several carriages and other railway paraphernalia.
There are two additional steam engines fully restored or being restored by preservation societies elsewhere and just waiting for a request so that they can be returned for display in Derry.
Tourism was one of the key employment creation sectors identified in ILEX’s One Plan and it is certain to be prioritised again within the Community Plan currently being drawn up by the new Derry City and Strabane District Council.
Derry is a relatively small city on the western fringe of Europe. To compete with other cities, we need to offer all of the services that any tourist destination would be expected to provide – quality accommodation, pubs, clubs, art galleries, theatres etc.
However, to really stand out as a tourism city, we need to have a unique story and we need to tell that story in a compelling way. Visitors are looking for experiences that offer a high degree of authenticity.
We can either spend tens of millions of euros and pounds in manufacturing a unique visitor experience, e.g. Titanic Belfast, or we can provide that experience through fully exploiting the authenticity of Derry’s remaining unique built heritage assets.
It would seem that Derry does not have a coherent plan for the conservation and development of the city’s railway heritage. Derry City Council recently invited development bids for the Foyle Valley Railway Museum site at Foyle Road.
Surprisingly, the invitation document included the use of the railway collection, without requiring the potential developer to have any track record in operating or developing a railway museum or in conserving a major industrial heritage collection.
It will also be a shock to railway heritage enthusiasts that, in 2002, the Department for the Environment delisted most of the buildings which made up the former Victoria Road Railway Terminus. These buildings were designed by the famous Irish railway engineer, James Barton, and comprise the only surviving narrow gauge railway terminus in the whole of Ireland!
There is a close connection between the collection in the Foyle Valley Railway Museum and the former Victoria Road Railway Terminus, just across the river. The core of the collection in the Railway Museum was actually used by the County Donegal Railway, which operated out of the Victoria Road Terminus.
It is time for stakeholders in Derry’s railway heritage, i.e. tourism authorities, local authorities, railway preservation societies and private sector property owners, to come together to devise a plan - one which will maximise the job creation potential of this unique heritage asset.