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The Evolution of Public Transport in the North West of Ireland
By Joseph Curran

Even in this day and age, there’s still a lot talked about railways – with people continually saying ‘The railways should never have been closed’ – and in some cases that’s undoubtedly true.

For many of them unfortunately economic factors dictated that for years they weren’t financially viable. With the flexibility of modern forms of transport, such as containers, articulated lorries and express buses, the extensive railway system as we knew it could never have survived.

For over a hundred years, that system did fulfil the need for need for transportation of passengers and goods, if not always speedily, at least they did it inexpensively. It was the right and best mode of transport in an age where there were no other options.

Before the trains, goods were moved by horse and cart, obviously limited in its range and carrying capability. For personal transport there was the horse and trap, with the same limitations. For public transport you had something like the Bianoni cars which were a type of horse drawn bus carrying six or eight people in an open air side decked vehicle, exposed to all the elements so you can imagine the difference even a slow moving trains would make, compared to what had gone before.

X Survey 10 – 16 July 1860 (Stranorlar – Strabane)

Vans 12
Carts 909
Jaunting Car 275
Gigs 14
Horses 106

Passengers conveyed in above 2305
Foot travellers 1105

X About the time my Grandfather was born

Railcar Clady Station

The first sign of railway life in Derry was the formation of the Londonderry and Enniskillen railway, which commenced building operations in 1845, and the line went via Carrigans, St Johnston, Porthall into Strabane where it arrived in 1847. This was only 20 years after the first ever railway service in the world, George Stephenson’s Stockton to Darlington line.
Derry, because of its natural harbour and port facilities, soon became a centre of railway excellence, with four termini each one riverside. Not even Dublin, in all its glory, could rival this fact. Soon to follow was the authorisation in 1852 of the Londonderry and Lough Swilly railway. This was envisaged originally as ‘The Great County of Donegal Railway’, or indeed it might have been entitled ‘The Great Northwestern Railway’, as a broad gauge system. In final fact the scheme was reduced to that of a narrow gauge system, three foot gauge, and so the rather less grandiose title was decided upon. Services started in 1863 to Toobin junction, and eventually to Letterkenny, Buncrana, Carndonagh and even far flung Burtonport, in 1903 the most North Westerly railway in Ireland. What was behind this expansion of the railways in the North West? Well, there are several reasons.

In the specific case of the Donegal lines, the Government of the time knew that the underdeveloped and backward districts of Ireland, like Burtonport and Killybegs, needed and deserved access to markets for their products and at the same time they needed the incoming necessities of life. The fashion had already evolved in the greater mainland that railways were without doubt the best possible means of development.

At the same time, and this applied to all the new railways, business people could see the potential for making money and directorships of railway companies became a coveted status symbol. The merchants in the more prosperous towns were canvassed by the prospective railway companies and equally so, the merchants themselves realised that to have their town on the map a railway must be passing through, or at best, very near.

In the case of the Castlederg railway the local MP Sir Robert Ferguson lobbied very actively at Westminster. This was necessary because every railway company had to have approval of a specific Act of Parliament. This was repeated by local dignitaries in towns all over the country.

Mainline trains were being developed by the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway as far back as 1836.
That railway reached Derry in 1852, having developed from Ballymena to Coleraine to Limavady under various titles, including the midland railway, and happily still exists to this day under the Northern Ireland Railways title. But the station in Derry is still colloquially known as the Midland.

In 1863 the newly formed Finn Valley railway opened to traffic joining the Londonderry and Enniskillen line to Strabane. It served points like Castlefin, Killygordon and Stranorlar.

In the fullness of time, with various extensions and amalgamations, it became known as the Co Donegal Railway, with lines to Killybegs, Ballyshannon, Glenties and Letterkenny. And as it reached Derry at the Victoria Road station on the East bank in August 1900.

Not all lines planned by the companies actually came into being for instance, there was a line planned from St Johnston to Letterkenny via Cuttyman Hill which was abandoned at the drawing board. Indeed the record for the shortest lived branch line in Ireland is held by the Magilligan branch of the Coleraine to Londonderry line, which opened in July 1885 and closed three months later. This prompts the question as to why it opened at all? It’s always possible of course that a local landlord had some influence with the railway company. This was certainly common in Co Donegal where lord Lifford had the west Donegal Railway so designed as to pass very close to his estate at Meenglass. He also had three more of the locomotives named after his daughters – Alice, Lydia and Blanche.
In the case of the Magilligan line, the relative ease of construction may also have had something to do with it being built. The land was exceptionally flat and it would have been relatively cheap to construct a line.

The Castlederg line that Sir Robert Ferguson lobbied for was originally projected to go as far as Donegal town, but the extension to Castlederg was never built onwards. Like so many of its fellows this railway was hard-pressed to make a profit from its first day and the will to extend evaporated.

All of the railways in Ulster were, without exception, travelling through some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, whether it be past Downhill, Barnesmore Gap, Lough Swilly, or the hills and rivers of Tyrone. The passengers were being conveyed, in the case of the mainline trains, in splendid luxury. The Belfast and Northern Counties railways had the most magnificent locomotives and coaches. The great Northern Railway, in addition to having splendid coaches and beautifully smart liveried staff, afforded their passengers catering facilities far in excess of those offered by any mode of transport available at this time.

Derry for instance serviced a fleet of tea cars, buffet cars, restaurant cars and even kitchen cars for some mainline trains. Indeed it was possible between 1908 and 1918 to book a sleeping car on the Derry to Dublin service on the 8.20 pm train. The charge for this was five shillings on top of the first class fare. The passenger could rest on the train at Dublin’s Amiens St. Station, after his early morning arrival and take his leave from the train at his own convenience. Express buses, eat your heart out!

Midland Railway
Derry - Strabane

For the most of their existence, in particular the smaller railways always had one eye on the balance sheet. Accountants effected economies here, used careful management of repairs and maintenance there, but it was still difficult to make ends meet. To be truthful, history would show that paradoxically the most profitable times were war years, whether that be the 14-18 war or the 39-45 war. The restrictions to the general public of the availability of petrol and diesel meant that more people had to travel and send their goods by rail. Undoubtedly the most important factor during the second world war was the vast number of troop movements by train. Needless to say the catering services were greatly appreciated by these passengers. Shortly after the war, it became evident that some of the smaller companies would go to the wall, equally so for the bigger companies. Just as one hundred or so years ago, it was the fashion to build railways, it now became the fashion to close railways.

One could say that the “Beeching Plan” in Britain had an influence on thinking in Ireland, both North and South. The advent of diesel postponed the evil day, and indeed all companies produced beautiful diesel locomotives and railcar sets, and it looked as if the future would be assured as various other economies were effected. However, as had always been an historical fact since the 1840’s, railways amalgamated, changed ownership, changed names, and the coming of the Ulster Transport Authority meant that the Great Northern Railway and the old Belfast and Northern Counties Railway passed to the ownership of the UTA.

The Ulster Transport Authority was already a well established organisation with an emphasis on road transport, because of this the signs for the railways were ominous. Indeed the Northern Ireland Government commissioned the Benson Report to look into the viability of Northern Railways in general and lines to Derry in particular. Benson wanted to close both lines to Derry, but the Government wanted one to survive. The then Minister of Home Affairs William Craig would decide which one. Many observers, even to this day, question whether the right choice was made. The line serving Antrim, Ballymoney, Ballymena and Coleraine survived. The line serving Dungannon, Cookstown, Omagh and Strabane together with such Donegal stations as Porthall St Johnston and Carrigans, did not survive. Some people have said it was apolitical decision as much as a financial one.

Strabane Station

The two light railways in Donegal took different, almost diverse approaches to tackling the economic plight which was made worse after 1921. Partition caused a lot of problems to railways. Custom stations had to be provided and the officers had to be accommodated at a cost to the company.
The Lough Swilly Railway directors realised early on that the line would be “no goldmine”. Economy was always a problem – form the 1930’s, no trains were run after dark to save oil. Lough Swilly decided to develop their own bus and lorry fleet to service their outlying stations.

The Donegal Railway Company decided to develop and experiment in early diesel rail cars and in fact became the first railway in the British Isles to have diesel power on scheduled services. This policy proved to be successful starting in the 1930’s. It can be argued that the Company would have closed much earlier than it did in 1960 if this policy hadn’t been pursued, but close it did, and indeed so did the Swilly Railway services in 1953. Today the Swilly survives as a bus and freight company under private management. The Donegal, however had a change of ownership in 1971, after being dissolved in an act of Parliament in Dial Eireann, and became part of CIE. The routes serviced by the old Co. Donegal Railways Joint Committee continue under the banner of Bus Eireann.

Today you can still see signs of the various lines that once ran through Ulster. In Derry, Victoria Road Station stands almost unscathed, now housing Foyle fisheries and a restaurant. The stationmaster’s house in Victoria Bridge is intact as are the station buildings in Castlederg. In Strabane which was one of the most important railway junctions in Ireland, there’s no sign at all of its former glory. I would like to end with a quote from a memorial to a doctor in Tyrone County Hospital in Omagh, which also seems appropriate to many a railwayman when reminiscing about the old lines.

“To live in the hearts of those we leave behind, is not to die.”