Fifty years ago on Valentine’s night, Terry Mullan left behind the sweat and grime of the railways but the memories are still as fresh as yesterday’s.
On February 14, 1965, while many Dungannon couples enjoyed a romantic evening, a faithful crowd had gathered at Dungannon’s Beechvalley station to witness a more sombre sight, the last train rolling out of the station.
Leaving 20 minutes late for Derry, the engine driver shook hands and bid final farewell to his Dungannon colleagues, to the sound of detonators exploding in the train’s wake.
Now Dungannon’s last surviving railway man, Mr Mullan remembers the sadness of the occasion, which marked the end of a transport system that had served Tyrone for a little over 100 years, and changed the fabric of economic and social life.
“They should never have closed the line”, said Terry, who is just shy of his 93rd birthday. “It was a bad mistake as it got rid of cheap travel for everyone, school children, workers, daytrippers to the seaside and emigrants heading for the boats at Derry and Belfast.”
Terry’s stories evoke a forgotten era of firemen, footplates, brake vans, flue tubes, signalmen and tail lamps.
“The train station at Dungannon was the gateway to the wider world”, explained the father-of-five.
“Not only did it export local produce and livestock, it brought people to the seaside. I remember the ticket to Bundoran used to cost just half a crown, which was very cheap compared to the price of travel these days.”
Terry worked a variety of jobs during the railway’s heyday, starting off as a porter at the age of 15 in 1937 and then working as ground relief staff. His first wage was 8 and 7 pence a week, which eventually rose to 10 and 7 pence.
“I was riding the trains while I was still at school, helping with bringing the cattle to market from our farm in Sixmilecross.
“I was delighted to get a job working on the trains, but it was dangerous work. It was a forty hour week with no time off, and the pay wasn’t big.
“Sometimes I worked on the shunting, where you had to connect the carriages together. It was a specialist job. You had to work in the corridors between the carriages, keeping yourself down low, because it was very cramped. You had to screw the chains up to tighten the carriages, and you also had to connect the heaters and vacuum brakes.
“The train brakes from the back, you see, the whole way through each carriage.”
Terry also recounted the heavy price that was paid by some men to keep the trains running.
“I had just left the train station at Omagh when a terrible accident happened killing four railway workers. It was a mistake from the signal man, who waved the green flag to the train, allowing it to go down the line when it should have been stopped.
“The men tried to get out of the way, but it was too late.
“Unfortunately, you had to put up with these things. The railway lines had to walked every day to ensure none of the pins came out of the sleepers. There was very little holding the engine to the track, only an inch or two of metal, and it could come off very easily.
“I remember another bad accident in Pomeroy in 1946, when the water washed away part of the line. The engine went over the bank, killing one of the firemen that night.”
There were numerous goods and parcel trains running then, including flat-bed wagons carrying sand and coal from Coalisland to Belfast.
“We had to weight out 12 ton of sand on every wagon and we had to be precise. The sand was used for ballast to line the boats at Belfast docks.
“I remember an old man called Joe Daly who worked alongside me. He was a great character, and even though he was never schooled he had such classy handwriting.”
To watch a video of Terry recounting his memories log onto www.tyronetimes.co.uk.