The Belfast & County Down Railway

The Belfast and County Down Railway Company operated a system for 100 years between 1848 and 1948, which at its peak covered 80 miles, exclusively within County Down.

The railway scheme came into being with ‘a meeting of parties favourable to the promotion of a railway to Holywood, Comber and Newtownards’ in February 1845, held in the Donegall Arms Hotel, Belfast, and the company itseld was incorporated in 26 June 1846.

This was during the height of ‘Railway Mania’ when numerous railway companies were formed, usually competing with each other to build in the same area.

The BCDR, familiarly known as the ‘County Down’, was no exception and had several rivals within the county, including the Great County Down Railway and the Holywood Atmospheric Railway. The BCDR bought off the Holywood Atmospheric Railway and a degree of compromise was reached with the Great County Down, so in June 1846 the BCDR obtained the Act of Parliament necessary to build the railway.

On the 2nd August 1848 with the first section of line from Belfast to Holywood opened to passenger traffic for the first time. Later this line would extend to Bangor and the main line would run from Belfast to Newcastle, with branches to Donaghadee, Ballynahinch and Ardglass.

Despite its size, the County Down was not an unimaginative railway, although most passenger services were catered for by uncomfortable and shaky six-wheeled carriages right up until the UTA takeover in 1948. The railway ran its own paddle-steamer service (the Bangor Boat) until 1915 and ran bus services to towns not connected by rail.

The County Down had 12 different classes of steam engines during its life, and was not afraid to try out several experimental types of engine, most notable the Holywood Railmotors, bogie carriages with locomotives built onto the end, which were highly successful, operating a shuttle service between Holywood and Belfast.

Less successful were the ‘Baltic’ class of locomotives. These required huge amounts of coal and were unsuited to the main line as they were too heavy, being relegated to the Bangor line. The County Down also ran the first ever diesel-electric locomotive in Ireland, D1 (later renumbered No.2) was built by Harland and Wolff shipyards and was used on the Ballynahinch line. Another diesel-electric locomotive was hired from Harland and Wolff, No.28, which operated the Ardglass line.

The County Down also played a vital role in the promotion of tourism in the Newcastle, with the construction of the Slieve Donard Hotel in 1897 and helping to form the Down Royal Golf Course, running the weekly ‘Golfers’ Express’ from Belfast to Newcastle.

The Belfast and County Down Main Line

The original scheme envisaged the line built from Queen’s Quay in Belfast to the towns of Holywood, Comber, Newtownards, Bangor via Conlig, Donaghadee, Killinchy, Killyleagh and Downpatrick.

Progress was slow at first and the company decided to concentrate on the Belfast-Holywood and Belfast-Newtownards sections for the time being. Work on the lines was contracted out to William Dargan (who was responsible for building Ireland’s first railway, the Dublin and Kingstown) with the single-track Holywood line opening in August 1848 and the Newtownards line opening in May 1850, with a gala opening day on 6th May 1850.

By this time the powers granted in the 1846 Act of Parliament had lapsed and had to be renewed before work could start towards Downpatrick. A new Act of Parliament was obtained in 1855, and saw the original scheme redrawn from the Killinchy/Killyleagh alignment to serve the towns of Ballygowan, Saintfield and Crossgar.

This new route passed through some difficult terrain and required many rock cuttings. The most notable one between Comber and Ballygowan was known as ‘the gullet’, now filled in. In between Saintfield and Crossgar another branch was built to the market town of Ballynahinch, opening on the 10th September 1858. Although a terminus, the station was built as a through-station, in the forlorn hope of extending the line to Dromore.

The mainline to Downpatrick was opened 23rd March 1859. Although enough land was purchased between Comber and Downpatrick to allow double track to be laid, and overbridges built to accomodate double track, this entire section remained single track throughout its life.

A couple of years later in 1861 it was thought that a southern extension to the railway might be possible when the Downpatrick and Newry Railway Company hoped to connect the County Down with the Newry, Warrenpoint and Rostrevor Railway. However, although shares were issued, the scheme failed to emerge and it was not until 1866 when the Downpatrick, Dundrum and Newcastle Railway Act was passed that a southern extension became a reality.

The DDNR was originally an independent company, but a latter Act of Parliament in 1868 allowed the BCDR to invest in the company, effectively making it a parent company to the DDNR. The line opened in March 1869, operated by the County Down for 12 years until completely taken over by the County Down.

As this extension was a separate development from the original line, trains from Belfast had to enter Downpatrick station, run the engine around the carriages and then proceed to Newcastle. In order to over come this an avoiding line was built just outside Downpatrick, linking the Belfast and Newcastle lines. A small platform was built at the junction of the new line and the Newcastle line to allow passenger to disembark and board a branch train to Downpatrick, or later to Ardglass.

The main line between Ballymacarrett and Knock was doubled from 1877 onwards. As traffic increased two further sections of line were doubled. This work began around 1892 on the main line from Knock to Comber and also the line to Bangor. The latter was done in stages and completed in 1902. The rest of the network remained single track throughout its lifetime.

The Bangor Branch

Both Acts of Parliaments granted to the County Down gave them the power to build to Bangor via a branch off the Donaghadee line at Conlig, but after several years the company’s Board of Directors decided against this plan and allowed the powers to lapse in 1861. In 1865 another company had arrived on the scene as well – the Belfast, Holywood and Bangor Railway. This company had persuaded Parliament and landowners to carry on the line from Holywood along the shore of Belfast Lough towards Bangor.

A separate station was built at Holywood and two notable stations at Cultra and Helen’s Bay were built to serve the area’s landowners before reaching Bangor. The line opened to traffic in May 1865. From 1859 the BCDR was suffering from increasingly worrying financial problems and in an attempt to ease these problems sold the Belfast-Holywood stretch of line to the BHBR, giving that company access to the city, although the BCDR required the BHBR to build a separate station at Queen’s Quay.

Eight years later, in an effort to clear itself of heavy debts the BHBR leased its line to the County Down in 1874. In 1884 an Act of Parliament transferred all the BHBR assets to the County Down. All BHBR rolling stock was taken into the County Down’s fleet and renumbered. The two stations were linked by opening a doorway between the two stations, but a complete renovation in 1911 merged the two stations, taking in the BHBR platforms and adding an impressive new glass canopy over the platforms.
The Donaghadee Branch

The BCDR itself, however, was now concentrating on finishing the branch line to Donaghadee, on which work had temporarily halted at Newtownards in 1850. The line opened in June 1861 and it was hoped that the railway could tap in to the steamer services between Donaghadee and the Scottish port of Portpatrick. However, Portpatrick was far too open to storms and rough seas for any regular service to occur and soon the main steamer services ran from Larne to Stranraer, and Donaghadee was unable to offer the County Down Railway any traffic from Scotland.
The Ardglass Branch

The branch line to Ardglass came about from indirect government aid to the herring industry. Ardglass was a busy fishing port, but had a small population so the majority of traffic was goods. The line left the Belfast-Newcastle line about half a mile south of Downpatrick Loop Platform and was built as inexpensively as possible, there were few earthworks and numerous short, steep gradients.

The line was begun 1890 with the granting of the Downpatrick, Killough & Ardglass Railway Act, obtained under the Light Railways (Ireland) Act, although in reality the line did not differ much from the rest of the BCDR system when built. It opened in 1892 and stations were built at the Downpatrick racecourse, Ballynoe, Killough and Ardglass, with halts at Coney Island and Bright built later.

A small stretch of line from Ardglass Station down to the harbour was laid so that fishing boats could unload directly into wagons, but this was rarely used and was soon lifted.

The Castlewellan Branch

With Newcastle becoming a popular tourist resort, the much larger Great Northern Railway (Ireland), operator of the Belfast to Dublin line, sought to expand into the town. The company already had a branch line through Banbridge which terminated at the small hamlet of Ballyroney, 18 miles from Newcastle, and wanted to build from there through Castlewellan down into Newcastle.

The County Down fought against these proposals but in the end a compromise was reached – the Great Northern was to build from Ballyroney to Castlewellan and the County Down was to build from Newcastle to Castlewellan.

The line opened in March 1906, and Castlewellan Station was run jointly by the two companies, the BCDR maintaining the run-round loop while the GNR(I) maintaining the station and the signalling, but crucially, the GNR(I) would have running powers to Newcastle. In return the BCDR got running powers to Ballyroney, although they had argued for running rights to Scarva.

This was a small hamlet and as such these powers had dubious value and were never exercised. The 24th March 1906 saw the arrival of the first GNR(I) trains in Newcastle, and with extra trains running into Newcastle a new station, twice the size of the original, was opened in the same year.

The Central Line

Although not part of the BCDR network, the Central line was used by both the GNR(I) and the County Down for excursion trains. The line was built by the Belfast Central Railway with the intention of connecting the BCDR, the GNR(I) and the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway, which later became part of the London Midland and Scottish Railway.

The Act of Parliament was granted in 1864, but as land was expensive around the City the Central was soon in financial difficulties. A new Act and a new Board of Directors in 1872 pushed work forward. The line ran from a junction half a mile south of Great Victoria Street to a station at Queen’s Bridge, with a branch from the Albert Bridge to the County Down, joining the line close to Ballymacarrett Junction. The company soon lost out to competition from tramways and was bought over by the GNR(I) which ended passenger traffic, using the line for goods and excursion trains to Bangor.

Later a tunnel was built under the end of Queen’s Bridge, connecting the Central line with the LMS (NCC), but this was only used for goods traffic.

Early 20th Century

The period after the start of the 20th Century was really the heyday of the BCDR system. In 1914 company dividends peaked at 6½%. War broke out in August that year. Passenger receipts increased especially with traffic to the army base at Ballykinlar which had an unadvertised halt for a period from 1915.

After the war there followed a period of unregulated competition from bus operators. At one particular time there were no less than 27 private bus services operating within County Down alone! This competition was especially felt in towns where the railway journey was longer than the equivalent road journey to Belfast. In areas close to Belfast the tram also was a major competitor. The extension of the tram line to Knock in 1905 led to cut throat competition for the commuter ticket.

The Ards Tourist Trophy Races

The RAC’s Tourist Trophy was the prize for a series of road races first and was competed for on the Isle of Man between 1905 and 1922. It was later revived from 1928 to 1936 with a new 13½ mile circuit in County Down. The course was roughly triangular and linked Dundonald, Newtownards and Comber. The start was at Quarry Corner and the route raced clockwise.

The BCDR main line crossed the route 4 times. Firstly at the site of the first Newtownards station. Next at Glass Moss level crossing, (1½ miles from Comber towards Newtownards). Thirdly under the bridge at Comber station and then lastly under the iron trellis bridge at Dundonald station. The photograph shows the hairpin bend at the Central Bar in Dundonald. This event proved to be a great tourist attraction and many people travelled by train to watch the practise sessions and the races themselves.

The BCDR took advantage of the situation by offering cheap fares and even building a semi-permanent grandstand at Comber. Glass Moss itself was not a normal halt but became so during the races. The trains could not cross the road and operated to here from either side. The races ended in 1936 after a terrible accident in Newtownards when 8 spectators were killed on the footpath near the Strangford Inn Hotel by an out of control car.
Second World War and the Ballymacarrett Accident

Before the war, competition from road passenger and freight services was stiff and the railway was beginning to show the signs of declining profits.

During the Second World War the BCDR saw a considerable increase in traffic. This was mainly due to traffic arising from evacuees from Belfast who were living outside the city and also troop movements.

On a foggy morning on the 10th January 1945 there was a fatal accident at Ballymacarrett in East Belfast. A railmotor train from Holywood collided with the 7.10 am train from Bangor which was stopped awaiting a signal change. 22 people were killed and a further 24 people injured. The enquiry into the accident placed the blame on the driver of the railmotor for travelling too fast for the poor visibility and also on the company’s rules relating to the passing of signals at ‘danger’.

The company paid out a sum of £80,000 in compensation. This was a figure the company could ill afford and it wiped out its Contingencies Reserve. This coupled with declining post-war traffic was one of the factors that led to the transfer of the company to public ownership.

The End of the Line

In 1946 the Northern Ireland Government announced that it was planning to bring the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board, the BCDR and the LMS (NCC) under one body to be known as the Ulster Transport Authority. The UTA came into being in September 1948 and the independent life of the railways was ended, except for the Great Northern which was not absorbed for ten years due to the complex legal arrangements of its cross-border nature.

Apart from new rolling stock from the NCC, running of the County Down lines remained unchanged until 1949 when drastic cuts in services appeared, and from January 1950 all lines south of Comber closed, with the Belfast-Comber-Donaghadee line closing the following April. The UTA found, however, that they were obliged to run the Castlewellan line while Great Northern trains ran on it and this was serviced by the Harland diesel until April 1950, although Great Northern services continued until 1955.

Running on the Bangor line remained unaffected, but the stations at Kinnegar, Marino and Craigavad were closed, although both Marino and Craigavad were soon reopened (with Craigavad closing again a year later) and two new stations and Crawfordsburn and Seahill were opened. The Belfast Central line, which linked the County Down with the rest of the rail network, was split in 1965 when Middlepath Street bridge was removed for road improvements, isolating the Bangor line.

Steam services were gradually replaced from 1953 onwards with the introduction of the Multi-Engined Diesel (MED) railcars, usually running in a three set formation. County Down carriages were withdrawn, with the underframes removed for scrap and the carriage bodies sold off.

All of the County Down’s fleet of locomotives were scrapped, bar No. 30 which was saved for preservation in the Transport Museum and the two diesels. Diesel engine No. 2 was returned to Harland and Wolff, where it worked the shipyards until the 1970s when it was scrapped. Fellow diesel No. 28 spent the next twenty years shunting at Great Victoria Street Station, and survived until the closure of Great Victoria Street when it succumbed to the cutter’s torch.

Throughout its life, the UTA was accused of favouring road transport versus rail transport. Sixty-one percent of the railway lines in Northern Ireland had been closed and further cuts were planned. After much dispute the Transport Bill of 1967 divided the UTA into three separate companies, Northern Ireland Railways, Ulsterbus and Northern Ireland Carriers (for road freight traffic).

In 1972 it was announced that the Bangor line was to be reconnected with the former GNR(I) lines and all services bar the Larne trains were to be re-routed into a new station to be built on the Central line, replacing Great Victoria Street Station and Queen’s Quay Station. Work was completed in 1976 and Great Victoria Street Station and Queen’s Quay Station were closed and demolished, although Great Victoria Street Station was reopened in 1995. The workshops at Queen’s Quay were refurbished to form the Central Services Depot, which was closed in 1996 when the cross-harbour link between Central Station and York Road Station was built.

The main reason given for the closure of the County Down main line was that the towns and villages it serviced were rural and not densely populated. However, within ten years of the closures most towns, for example Dundonald, Comber and Newtownards, had substantially grown in size, virtually guaranteeing commuter traffic.

In the last couple of years, due to increasing car use by commuters, several proposals have been drawn up in regards to the Comber line ranging from reopening the line as it was when closed, to a light railway or a limited size busway. Certainly with the near-critical increase of road congestion, it has been slowly and expensively learnt that the answer to congestion is not to build more roads but to fund alternative forms of transport. Perhaps there’s life in the old County Down yet.
BCDR Staff at Downpatrick


This article is dedicated to all those people who worked on the BCDR


References and further reading:

  1. Irish Railway Record Society
  2. Wikipedia – History of rail transport in Ireland
  3. Dundonald Railway Station Then & Now
  4. Irish Railwayana Website
  5. H.C. Casserly – Outline of Irish Railway History
  6. D. Coakham – The Belfast & County Down Railway
  7. Dr. E.M. Patterson – The Belfast & County Down Railway