Carrickfergus train driver who carried Queen and Duke on board reminisces about historic day

The Queen at Bellarena train stop in June 2016. Pic PA
Noel Playfair met the Queen in 2016 when she opened Bellarena station. Credit: UTV

A Carrickfergus train driver who carried Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh on board a special steam engine on their last ever visit to Northern Ireland, says it was 'a great privilege'.

Noel Playfair has been a train driver for 39 years. However, on June 26, 2016, one journey was not like any normal day on the tracks for the 61-year-old as he had two very special guests on board.

The royal couple were in Northern Ireland for a visit which included the opening of Bellarena train station in Co Londonderry.

The day started out like any other for Noel, except for a little extra sparkle added to his uniform.

"I cleaned my shoes three times before I went out to work that day," he told UTV on the platform at Lanyon Place station in Belfast.

The train was due to leave from Coleraine and head west towards Londonderry, arriving in Bellarena at around 3.10pm.

"It wasn't until I got to Coleraine station, I saw the train sitting, it was polished up, the police were around protecting it. I started to get nervous."

"The station that day was magnificent," he says. "The platforms were gleaming.

After a period of waiting for the monarch to arrive, with Noel sitting in the carriage and gazing out towards the road, it was time to fire up the engines.

Noel says he remembers seeing the Queen's car traveling across the level crossing at the station.

"I took a deep breath and thought, well this is it now, it's up to you to hold it together."

He continues: "I just did what I do normally."

Crowds lined up at Coleraine station and along the route which also encompasses Castlerock, a route which arguably provides some of the best views of Northern Ireland with Downhill beach running parallel to the track.

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh onboard the train. Credit: PA

The piece of track is often regarded as one of the most scenic in the world.

Noel says he fondly remembers the size of the crowd that day, all turning out to see the UK's longest reigning monarch aboard the locomotive.

"I was sort of calm at that time until I saw [hundreds of people].

"We kept our speed down because we couldn't get there too quickly as her cars were accompanying us along the line.

"I enjoyed the run and waved to all the people along the lineside and in the fields."

Although nervous at points, Noel says it was more for driving the train rather than meeting the royal couple.

"Meeting the Queen and Prince Philip was the easy part of the day really," he said. "They're so familiar to you and they took the lead. It was a privilege to do it.

"It's thanks to Translink and the Railway Society in Whitehead, they provided the train.

Reflecting on the past week, the train driver believes the Queen's death marked 'the end of an era' and that since she died, he has looked fondly back at the day the met.

Noel says it is a day that will stay with him for the rest of his life.

"I haven't forgotten it , I remember everything about the day."

Asked if he hopes to have the honour of ferrying the new King on a similar journey, Noel says he hopes so.

"I've heard he likes Northern Ireland and he likes railways so there's always a possibility.

"I've only about seven more years to go before I retire so hopefully there'll be a train [journey] fitted in before that, and I'll be pleased to do it."

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