Out on ‘the beet’—turning muck into gold

One of my favorite late-season projects was documenting Irish Rail’s annual sugar-beet campaign. This combined many of my railway interests in one action-intensive activity. Sugar beet was delivered to the station at Wellingtonbridge County, Wexford and loaded into antique purpose-built four-wheel freight wagons. Trains typically weighed 775-Tonnes, and were hauled using Irish Rail’s General Motors diesels to a processing plant at Mallow, County Cork.

Wellingtonbridge was a quiet place most of the year, except in beet season when it was a hotbed of railway activity. A signal cabin at the west end of the platform controlled movements using a network of rods and wires to move points and set semaphore signals. The single-line between Wellingtonbridge and Waterford was governed using a traditional electric train staff system, and was often at the limits of capacity. As soon as an empty train would arrive, a laden train would take the staff and head west toward Waterford. Leaving Wellingtonbridge the line climbed sharply up Taylorstown Bank, and here GM diesels would roar away in Run-8 (maximum throttle) for several minutes to keep moving. Irish Rail prohibits sanding the rail, and on damp days (which are common to Ireland) the diesel’s would slip. While most of the time they’d make the grade, there were some hairy moments.

NIR-112-with-laden-beet-Tay
Beet season taxed Irish Rail’s diesel fleet to its limits and in the 2005-2006 season Northern Ireland Railways 112 was borrowed to help out. On this November 2005 morning it roars up Taylorstown Bank on its way to Waterford with a train-load of freshly harvested sugar beet. Nikons and Fujichrome captured this scene—forever gone.
Wellingtonbridge-Cabin-20-N
On November 20, 2004, as the last light of a dull day fades, the signalman at Wellingtonbridge cabin is hard at work. The slap of levers against the clopping sounds of beet being loaded was the sounds of Wellingtonbridge in beet season. Nikon F3T with Fujichrome slide film.
Wellingtonbridge-Co
Wellingtonbridge was a bee hive of activity during beet season. In December 2005, locomotive 072 waits for a signal to reverse onto a laden train.

In 1999, I began photographing ‘the beet’—as my Irish friends called it, and continued my work until January 2006. Every season was threatened to be the last, and so it was little surprise when the operation finally ended after the 2005-2006 season. The reasons for this were complex, but were directly related to a withdrawal of European Union subsidy. The wagons were cut up as were many of the locomotives that hauled them. A few years after the beet finished, the South Wexford Line’s (Waterford-Wellingtonbridge-Rosslare) sole daily passenger service was suspended, leaving the tracks empty. Today the railway at Wellingtonbridge is dormant, so I have no regrets making pilgrimages to stand in frosty damp mucky fields on dark days, hoping for a bright moment as 645 diesels roared my way. I’d be there now doing the same if I had the chance.

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