Brief history of Irish railways

The Belfast & County Down Railway was just one of many railway companies in Ireland

The railways of Ireland were born in the “Railway Mania” of the 1830s and 1840s, with the first railway opening between Dublin and Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), a distance of six miles, in 1834, only a decade later than that of Great Britain. The contractor was William Dargan, now known as the founder of railways in Ireland due to his participation in many of the main routes. Fortunately this route is still open to the public, and is part of Dublin’s DART system.

By its peak in 1920, Ireland as a whole had 3,400 route miles of railway. The current status is less than half that amount, with a large unserviced area around the border area between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The Gauge

One question that is frequently asked is why Ireland has a gauge (distance between the rails) of 5ft 3in (1600 mm) instead of the most common ‘standard’ gauge, 4ft 8½ inches, especially as all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom at that time. Indeed, the Dublin & Kingstown Railway was initially built to George Stephenson’s gauge of 4ft 8½ inches, but circumstances would soon change, leading to Ireland’s distinctive gauge.

The problem arose when the Ulster Railway began to construct its line between Belfast and Armagh. They chose the gauge of 6ft 2in, and the proposers behind the planned Dublin and Drogheda Railway were going to build their line to a gauge of 5’2″. Immediately this caused political wranglings, as the different gauges between Ireland’s three railway would lead to the problems faced by railways across the water in Great Britain – where trains from one railway could not run on another.

At this point, the Board of Trade stepped in and asked Major-General Pasley of the Royal Engineers to examine the situation. After ruling out Brunel’s 7ft broad-gauge he asked the opinion of the Stephensons their opinion, who (while committed to 4ft 8½ in GB) suggested a compromise gauge for Ireland between 5ft 0in and 5ft 6in.

It was at this point that Major-General Pasley discovered that the exact average between all three gauges was 5ft 3in, and so made his recommendation that this should be the standard gauge throughout Ireland, which was readily accepted by the Board of Trade. A brilliant example of a political compromise! Naturally, the Dublin and Drogheda enthusiastically accepted the ruling (only being one inch out), while the other two parties were probably not so pleased…

The gauge of the Ulster Railway was altered about 1846, and that of the Dublin and Kingstown Railway in 1857, the alteration costing the latter company £38,000.

This unusual gauge is otherwise found only in the Australian states of Victoria, southern New South Wales (as part of Victoria’s rail network) and South Australia (where it was introduced by the Irish railway engineer F.W. Shields), and in Brazil.

Narrow Gauge

Five-foot-three was not the only gauge to operate in Ireland – numerous narrow-gauge systems were built, usually to a gauge of 3 feet (914 mm). Ireland had the largest narrow-gauge system in the British Isles: the County Donegal Railways. While all passenger carrying narrow gauge lines had closed by the 1960s to commuter/goods use, a few rebuilt lines survive as heritage railways in both the Republic and in Northern Ireland; while in the bogs of the Republic’s Midlands, as part of Bord na Móna’s peat transport network. There is also a private bog railway in Northern Ireland, operated by the Sunshine Peat Company on the southern shores of Lough Neagh.

Partition

The rail system, both North and South, survived the Anglo-Irish War and partition largely unscathed, but the Irish Civil War was to take a much heavier toll on the railways in the newly born Irish Free State. One of the most spectacular attacks on the infrastructure was the bombing of the Mallow viaduct. In 1925, the railway companies within the Irish Free State were merged to form the Great Southern Railways (GSR). This company was amalgamated with the Dublin United Transport Company in 1945 to form Córas Iompair Éireann.

After partition in 1921, railway services wholly within Northern Ireland (excluding narrow gauge) were provided by two private railway companies, the Belfast and County Down Railway and the London Midland and Scottish Railway (Northern Counties Committee), with the Great Northern Railway of Ireland providing cross border services, including the Belfast to Dublin service. Another cross-border service was provided in the west of Northern Ireland by the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway which met with the GSR in Sligo, and connected it with the GNRI in Enniskillen via Manorhamilton.

The County Donegal Railways (CDR) and Londonderry and Lough Swilly (L&LSR) narrow gauge railways also zig-zagged the new border.

Partition however, would eventually exact a heavy toll on the cross border routes (intrinsic to the County Donegal rail network), as the border introduced customs checks on both sides, causing journey times to vastly increase.

Nationalisation

In 1948, the devolved Northern Ireland Government at Stormont decided to nationalise the LMS (NCC), which was actually now part of the fledgling British Railways, and the BCDR with the State-owned road operator, the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board, into a new “Ulster Transport Authority”. The GNRI, SLNCR and CDR and L&LSR were exempt due to their intricate crossborder operations – the GNRI was not absorbed until 1958, while the other were never taken over.

Following the formation of the UTA, widespread line closures began to take place, starting with the BCDR main line from Belfast to Newcastle. The UTA was dogged with accusations of anti-rail bias, and by 1967 the Authority was wound up and replaced by Ulsterbus, Northern Ireland Carriers (for freight, which soon passed into the private sector) and Ulster Transport Railways which became Northern Ireland Railways in 1968. However, the dissolution of the UTA came too late for the 61% of Northern Ireland’s rail network which was lost in those twenty years, as can be seen in the map on the right.

Services began to improve on the new NIR services, with new rolling stock introduced and track upgrading. It was on NIR metals that the last steam services ended in the United Kingdom, in 1971, despite what BR would like us to believe!

In 1995, the Boards of NIR, Citybus, and Ulsterbus were brought under common management under the brand name Translink. Under Translink, a brand new “Enterprise” service, the flagship service of the GNR(I), has been launched, and recently the former LMS (NCC) main line to Antrim via Bleach Green has reopened. Further significant investment in the NIR network will occur in the next couple of years, after a concerted lobbying campaign known as the “Save Our Railways” campaign.

Unfortunately in recent months the spectre of the 50s and 60s has raised its head in again, with the very real possibility of the Derry line and Larne lines being closed north of Ballymena and Whitehead respectively.

To see how the network in Northern Ireland was reduced under the UTA, the BBC’s educational website has a rollover map that illustrates the shrinkage of the network here.

References and further reading:

  1. Irish Railway Record Society
  2. Wikipedia – History of rail transport in Ireland
  3. H.C. Casserly – Outline of Irish Railway History
  4. D. Coakham – The Belfast & County Down Railway