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Time for the May Tour

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There was to be a train on the North Kerry, hauled by 186. I had just started occasionally visiting Whitehead, where my first task had been to help digging out old sleepers with my father, a former PW engineer.


"Can we go?"


No. Exams. Why can't the RPSI run it in July?


Fast forward a few years. There was to be a trip over the Burma Road, again with 186. Exams; albeit the last I would ever have to do. Whew!


There was a song on the radio. "Aint Gonna Work No More", by Status Quo. "That's me", I thought.


Some people make new year resolutions. I am proud to be able to say I've stuck to that one for over forty years now. Bualadh bos!


But after being in employment for several years, when the South Wexford was advertised for 1978, I thought to meself, that'll do me. It was a spectacular trip. The weather was lovely, I had a good set of lenses for a decent camera (pity about the photographer though!), and life was good. The sun split the sky as we trundled along the quays in exford, and I tried to get a decent shot of the old South station out of the carriage window.


I bought lots of railway books from the little shop in the end of coach 861, so many that I struggled with my luggage for the rest of the weekend. On the Sunday, 184, 186 and 4 were all in steam at Limerick Junction, and wandering all ov er the yard, the main running lines, and everywhere else, I got some noce shots of the steam trio with a light engine "A" which was sitting on the main line awaiting a signal.


I went back to the book shop; think moths and light. The man in charge of it had become used to me by now and asked me if i could keep an eye on it while he went to the loo. I did so, and there began a long long relationship with book sales which will continue 24 hours after I write this. But I was not rostered, I was not crew; I was a paying passenger, so in due course off I went to discuss matters of importance at the bar with like minded barflies.


"What do you think of the new engines?"


"Haven't seen one yet, but they're just the same as the "B" class, only longer and six wheeled bogies"


"Why do they call them 071s - you'd think there'd be a letter, y'know, power classification an all that"


"Want a refill there?"


"Yes... what's that just passed us?"


"The Shelton, didn't see what was on it"


"A27 transplant"


"Oh. .. Cheers, gimme one of those bags of nuts too"


"I'm heading out to take pictures of the Listowel goods next week, ye free?"


"Nah... I've a lift arranged on the Kingscourt Goods. If that falls through... here, same again?"


I am sure I will hear conversations like that as I go down the diesel trip to Sligo on Friday. Maybe without mention of Listowel, though. But I digress:


Fast forward again, but just a few years. 09:30, Tour Saturday, onto the train, photos and pints. Pints, pints, pints. Life is good. Up to the bar, hair o'the'dog won't do any harm. Last night was just massssave, Stepaside were playing in the Baggot Inn. Oh me head. U2 werent supporting that night, haven't seen them in there for a while. Maybe they'll go places.


But there was nobody behind the bar. Nobody in the kitchen, and the train was setting off. What I did not know was that at the last minute the catering crew had not been able to make it, and we were looking at the Marie Celeste. Another well known RPSI activist appeared - he too was just enjoying the weekend, off duty. (My role was still primarily carrige restoration at Whitehead ans book sales on day trips).


"What's happening", sez he. "Dunno", sez I, but a pint would do no harm. Cue a deluge of Englishmen seeking multiple Guinnii. There was nothing for it. Joe and I got behind the counter and served at the bar all weekend; in my case the bar-serving weekend lasted 11 years. And, no, I never got my pint; my first one was probably 10 pm that night in whatever hotel we were overnighting in. Talk about a baptism of fire. In those days there were many large groups of younger enthusiasts from the UK on the May Tours, and some of these drunk the place dry; great for RPSI fund raising! I seem to remember one lot of gents from a railway society in Birmingham, who were also real ale fanatics. But with such strange stuff not existing in good holy Ireland back in the day, it was Guinness or nothing. So they decided not to opt for nothing.


Fast forward again. I'm in charge of the dining car and bar in the early nineties, and we are to pick up the packed lunches at Kilkenny on the Sunday. They have been loaded onto the down Waterford, and once we pull in beside it, myself and three catering crew get down on the track between the Waterford genny van, and our dining car.


I climb up to the genny van and open the doors, to the astonishment of the train guard, who is reading the Sunday World. Breathless, I say "Where's the packed lunches?"


"Wha? What packed lunches? Ye can't get in here!" I looked about. The van was empty. The guard was not wrong.


There were no mobile phones in those days, though one member of our train crew had a large black breeze block with a long aerial, from which calls could be made, reception and weather permitting. The dining car stock was down to a few kit-kats, and we had some 150 punters with tickets which said "Bring me to the dining car after Kilkenny and ye will get yer lunch, so ye will".


And they were Q-ing.


What to do? Quick thinking used to be a necessity on May Tours, just as Elfin Safety is now. Obligatory.


To cut a long story short, Heuston catering had put our lunches on the down Galway, not the Waterford train, and they were speeding towards the bogs from which you must not remove turf right there and then. (Well, you were allowed then; Ming was but a mere youth).


Punters were calmly told, "Sorry for the slight delay folks, we'll have the lunches ready at Bagenalstown". (After we've said our prayers).


At Bagenalstown, the lunches were unloaded from a white van on the platform and distributed.


How did we do this? High friends in low places, and a motor bike escort of said van from Tullamore or somewhere at speed, through the blooming lanes of spring gorse of Co Offally and Laois, on a May Sunday morning.


And it's Tour Week. In 24 hours I'll be on it. There's nothing like it, nothing at all. The RPSI May Tour is a life force in itself, an institution, a pillar of the year, of years. In my case, something over 35 of them. Long may they last.

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