History of rail transport in Ireland

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1906 Viceregal Commission rail map of Ireland
File:Ireland's Rail Network 1925-75.gif
Ireland's extensive rail network was largely dismantled during the 20th Century
Map of Irish rail network between 1925 and 1930
This article is part of the history of rail transport by country series

The history of rail transport in Ireland began only a decade later than in Great Britain. By its peak in 1920, Ireland had 5,500 route kilometers. 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.

Ireland's railways are run by Iarnród Éireann in the Republic and Northern Ireland Railways. The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland based in Whitehead, County Antrim runs preserved steam trains on the main line, with the Irish Traction Group preserving diesel locomotives, and operating on the main line. The Downpatrick & County Down Railway is the only self-contained full-size heritage railway in Ireland. See rail transport in Ireland for the current situation.

Transport before railways

Transport on a country-wide scale began in 1710 with the introduction by the General Post Office of mail coaches on the main routes between towns. Private operators added to the routes, and an established road system was set up. In 1715 the Irish Parliament took steps to encourage inland navigation, but it was not until 1779 that the first 12-mile section of the Grand Canal was opened. The addition of a second canal, and river navigation (particularly on the River Shannon) meant that freight could be transported more easily. Charles Bianconi established his horse-car services in the south in 1815, the first of many such passenger-carrying operations.

Ireland's first railway

The first railway, in 1834, was the Dublin and Kingstown Railway (D&KR) between Dublin and Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire), a distance of six miles. The contractor was William Dargan, called the founder of railways in Ireland, due to his participation in many of the main routes. The D&KR were notable in being one of the earliest dedicated commuter railways in the world. The planning undertaken was also noteworthy: a full traffic survey of the existing road traffic was made, in addition to careful land surveys.

As well as the traffic survey showing existing volumes to be healthy, there was the traffic potential from the ever expanding port at Kingstown. On 17 December 1834 the locomotive Hibernia brought a train the full route from the Westland Row terminus (now Pearse Station) to Dún Laoghaire, about half a mile north of Kingstown. The railway was built to standard gauge, 4 ft 8½ in (1435 mm).

The entire route forms part of the present day Dublin Area Rapid Transit electrified commuter rail system.

Railway gauges

The track gauge adopted by the mainline railways is 5 ft 3 in (1600 mm). This unusual gauge is otherwise found only in the Australian states of Victoria, southern New South Wales (as part of the Victorian rail network) and South Australia (where it was introduced by the Irish railway engineer F. W. Shields), and Brazil.

The first three railways all had different gauges: the Dublin and Kingstown Railway, 4 ft 8½ in (1435 mm); the Ulster Railway, 6 ft 2 in (1880 mm); and the Dublin and Drogheda Railway, 5 ft 2 in (1575 mm). The Board of Trade, recognising the chaos that would ensue, asked one of their officers to advise. After consulting widely he eliminated both the widest and narrowest gauges (Brunel's 7' 1/4" and Stephenson's 4' 8½"), leaving gauges between 5' 0" and 5' 6". By splitting the difference, a compromise Irish gauge of 5 ft 3 in was adopted. The Ulster Railway was re-gauged in about 1846, and the Dublin and Kingstown Railway in 1857, the alteration costing the latter company £38,000.

Numerous narrow-gauge systems were built, usually to a gauge of 3 feet (914 mm): see the list below. Most are now closed, including the largest narrow-gauge system in the British Isles: the County Donegal Railways Joint Committee. The Irish narrow gauge today survives as heritage railways in both the Republic and in Northern Ireland. Bord na Móna uses narrow gauge in the Midland's bogs as part of its peat transport network. There is also a private peat railway on the southern shores of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland, operated by the Sunshine Peat Company

Main line railways

By the beginning of the 20th century, the main line railways were:

Other railways

  • Completely independent
    • Ballycastle Railway 16.25 miles (26 km) (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1878, opened 1880; four locomotives, 74 other vehicles
    • Bessbrook and Newry Light Railway (electric) 3 miles (5 km) (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1884; one locomotive, 24 other vehicles
    • Castlederg and Victoria Bridge Tramway 7.25 miles (1 2km); (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1883, opened 1884; three locomotives, 34 other vehicles; closed 1933
    • Cavan and Leitrim Light Railway 48.5 miles (78 km); (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1883, opened 1888; nine locomotives, 167 other vehicles
    • Cavehill and Whitewell Tramway 3.75 miles (6 km)
    • Clogher Valley Light Railway 37 miles (59 km) (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1884, opened 1887; seven locomotives, 127 other vehicles; closed 1942
    • Clonakilty Extension Light Railway 8.75 miles (14 km); (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1881, opened 1886
    • Cork and Macroom Direct Railway 24.5 miles (38 km); incorporated 1861, opened 1866; four locomotives, 132 other vehicles
    • Cork and Muskerry Light Railway (C&MLR) 18 miles (29 km); (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1883, opened 1887; six locomotives, 87 other vehicles
      • Donoughmore Extension Railway 9 miles (14 km) (worked by C&MLR) incorporated 1900
    • Cork, Blackrock and Passage Railway 16 miles 26 km); (originally Irish gauge, converted to 3ft gauge in 1900); incorporated 1846, opened 1850; four locomotives, 57 other vehicles
    • Dublin and Blessington Steam Tramway 15.5 miles (25 km); (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1887, opened 1888; four locomotives, 46 other vehicles
    • Dublin and Lucan Electric Railway 7 miles (11 km); {1 foot 11.5 inches (600 mm) gauge) 37 vehicles
    • Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway 26.5 miles (42 km); incorporated 1863; six locomotives, 230 other vehicles
    • Giant's Causeway, Portrush and Bush Valley Railway 8 miles (13 km); (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1880; two electric locomotives, 23 other vehicles
    • Listowel and Ballybunion Railway 10 miles (16 km); (3 ft gauge) (Lartigue system); incorporated 1886, opened 1888; three locomotives, 39 other vehicles
    • Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway (L&LSR) 83 miles (133 km); (3 ft gauge); opened 1863/1904 extension; 18 locomotives, 311 other vehicles
      • Letterkenny Railway 16 miles (26 km); worked by L&LSR; opened 1883
    • Schull and Skibbereen Railway 14 miles (22 km); four locomotives, 61 other vehicles
    • Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway 49 miles (78 km); (standard gauge); incorporated 1875, opened 1882; 11 locomotives, 228 other vehicles; closed 1957
    • South Clare Railway 26 miles (42 km); three locomotives, 27 other vehicles
    • Timoleaugue and Courtmacsherry Railway (T&CR) 9 miles (14 km); (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1888, opened 1891; two locomotives, 119 other vehicles
      • Ballinascarthy Railway; worked by T&CR; (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1888, opened 1890
    • Tralee and Dingle Light Railway 37.5 miles (60 km); (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1884, opened 1891; eight locomotives, 108 other vehicles
    • Waterford and Tramore Railway 7.25 miles (12 km); (3 ft gauge); incorporated 1851, opened 1853; four locomotives, 32 other vehicles
    • West Clare Railway 27 miles (4 3km); (3 ft gauge); opened 1887; eight locomotives, 146 other vehicles
  • Worked by CB&SCR
    • Clonakilty Extension Railway 8.75 miles (14 km); opened 1886
  • Worked by CDJC
    • Strabane and Letterkenny Railway 19.5 miles (31 km); opened 1909
  • Worked by D&SER
    • City of Dublin Junction Railway 1.25 miles (2 m); opened 1891
    • Dublin and Kingstown Railway 6 miles (10 km); opened 1834
    • New Ross and Waterford Extension Railway 13.5 miles (22 km); opened 1904
  • Worked by GNR(I)
    • Castleblayney, Keady and Armagh Railway 18.25 miles (29 km); opened 1909
  • Worked by GSWR (standard gauge)
    • Athenry and Tuam Extension Light Railway 17 miles (27 km)
    • Baltimore Extension Light Railway 8 miles (13 km)
    • Tralee and Fenit Railway 8 miles (13 km); opened 1887
    • Waterford, New Ross and Wexford Junction Railway 3.25 miles (5 km) (leased from D&SER)
  • Worked by MGWR (standard gauge)
    • Ballinrobe and Claremorris Railway 12 miles (19 km); opened 1892
    • Loughrea and Attymon Railway 9 miles (14 km) opened 1890
  • Worked by NCCMid (standard gauge)
    • Carrickfergus Harbour Junction Light Railway 1 mile (2 km); incorporated 1882, opened 1887

The information contained in this section obtained from Railway Year Book 1912 (Railway Publishing Company)

Belfast and County Down Railway

The Belfast and County Down Railway linked Belfast south-eastwards into County Down. It was built in the 19th century, absorbed into the Ulster Transport Authority in 1948 and all but the line to Bangor closed in 1950.

Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway

The Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway (CBSCR) was one of the major Irish railways. It operated from Cork, serving towns along the southern coastal strip to the west of the city. It had a route length of 93.75 miles (150km), all single line. The Railway was largely concerned with tourist traffic, and there were many road car routes connecting with the line, including one from Bantry to Killarney called The Prince of Wales Route, which operated at the beginning of the 20th century.

County Donegal Railways Joint Committee

The County Donegal Railways Joint Committee operated in north-west Ireland during the 20th century. It was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1906 which authorized the joint purchase of the then Donegal Railway Company by the Great Northern Railway of Ireland and the Midland Railway Northern Counties Committee.

Dublin and South Eastern Railway

The Dublin and South Eastern Railway (DSE) was originally incorporated, by Act of Parliament in 1846, as the Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow and Dublin Railway Company; it was known more simply as the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway Company between 1860 and 31 December 1906 when it became the DSE. Amongst the lines forming the DSE were the Dublin and Kingstown Railway: authorised 1831, it opened in 1834 - the first public railway in Ireland. The Kingstown-Dalkey section was operated by atmospheric traction for a short while. The railway formed part of the Royal Mail route between London and Dublin via the packet station at Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire).

Great Northern Railway of Ireland

The route of the Great Northern Railway of Ireland (GNR(I)), which exists today from Dublin to Belfast and Drogheda to Navan, emerged, like so many others of the former major railway companies in Ireland, as the result of many amalgamations with smaller lines. The earliest dates of incorporation were for:

  • the Ulster Railway, the second railway project to start in Ireland, incorporated May 1836, partially opened 1839; it was originally constructed to a gauge of 6 feet 2 inches (1880 mm), but was later altered, under protest, to the new Irish standard gauge. The companies forming the Dublin to Belfast line and those connecting to it were obliged to contribute part of this cost.
  • the Dublin & Drogheda Railway (D&DR), also incorporated 1839, opened in 1844.
  • the Irish North Western Railway (INWR), incorporated in 1862 in a merger between the Dundalk & Enniskillen Rwy. and the Enniskillen & Londonderry Rwy., operated from Dundalk and Portadown via Enniskillen and Omagh to Derry.
  • the Dublin & Belfast Junction Railway (D&BJR), incorporated in 1845 and opened in stages between 1849 and 1853.

In 1875, the D&DR and the D&BJR merged to form the Northern Railway of Ireland and thirteen months later the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) (GNR(I)) was formed when the Ulster Railway and the INWR joined this concern. Other minor railways were subsequently taken over. At its height, in the thirty or so years prior to World War I, the GNR(I) covered a large area of Ireland between Dublin, Belfast, Derry and Bundoran. By the end of WWII the company was in dire straits. It struggled on until 1953 when it was nationalised by the two Governments, becoming the Great Northern Railway Board.

In 1957, the Government of Northern Ireland (then a self governing dominion) unilaterally ordered the GNRB to close most of their lines west of the Bann within Northern Ireland. This left some useless stubs within the Republic, such as through Pettigo station; 8 miles from the border to Bundoran and Monaghan to Glaslough. The Republic of Ireland Government had no choice but to abandon these stubs. The one exception, which survived until 1965, was the line from Portadown to Derry via Dungannon and Omagh.

The GNRB was abolished in 1958, when it was split between the Ulster Transport Authority and Córas Iompair Éireann in Northern Ireland and the Republic, respectively. This gave rise to the interesting situation whereby part of the line between Strabane and Derry was in the Republic of Ireland and the stations and permanent way staff on this section were CIE employees, even though there was no physical link to the rest of the CIE rail network.

Great Southern & Western Railway

Still known today as the 'premier line', the Great Southern & Western Railway (GS&WR) was the largest railway system in Ireland. It began as a railway incorporated to connect Dublin with Cashel - incorporated 6 August 1844 - and which was afterwards extended to the city of Cork. Various other amalgamations took place until the end of the 19th century, among them lines to Limerick and Waterford.

In 1900, as a result of Acts of Parliament, several important lines became part of the GS&WR system, including the Waterford and Central Ireland Railway and the Waterford, Limerick and Western Railway. The latter connected Sligo to Limerick. The Railway also connected with the Midland Great Western Railway main line at Athlone on its Dublin–Galway main line.

Midland Great Western Railway

The Midland Great Western Railway main line connected Dublin to to Galway and Clifden via (Athlone); there were a number of branch lines:

The Railway was first incorporated in 1845.

Northern Counties Committee

Main articles: Northern Counties Committee, Midland Railway

The Northern Counties Committee (Midland Railway) was an amalgamation of the Midland Railway with the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway which came about on 1 July 1903.


In 1888 the worlds first commercial monorail, named the Lartigue system after Charles Lartigue, was constructed between Listowel and Ballybunion. A modern day re-creation of this system operates in Listowel. Photogaphs of this can be found here: Lartigue Railway Photographs 2004

Struggling in the early 20th century

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

Partition however, would eventually exact a heavy toll on the cross–border routes (intrinsic to the County Donegal rail network).

World War II also proved costly for the rail system in the Republic. With the war effort, Britain could not spare coal for neutral Ireland. Thus, Irish steam engines often ran on poor quality Irish coal, wood, or not at all. Unsuccessful attempts were even made to burn peat. The deteriorating quality and frequency of service discouraged rail travellers, whose numbers were also diminishing due to steadily increasing emigration.

Diesel Dawn

Railways in the Republic were converted to diesel locomotive traction early, and swiftly, due to the run down nature of many of the steam engines, lack of coal, and a desire for modernisation. In 1951 CIÉs first diesel railcars arrived, followed in 1953 by an order for 100 diesel locomotives. A full list of CIE diesel locomotives can be found here.


Disused railway viaduct at Lispole, County Kerry on the Dingle-Tralee line

In the 1950s and 1960s large swathes of route were closed in the Republic but evidence is still visible in the landscape, as are more significant features like bridges and viaducts. Notable was the loss of the entire West Cork Railway network. Most branch lines in the Republic were also closed. By and large the main route network survived intact, with a relatively even distribution of cutbacks. The main routes from Dublin to Belfast, Sligo, Galway and the West of Ireland, Limerick, Cork and Kerry, Waterford and Wexford survived. The cross country route from Waterford to Limerick and onwards to Sligo survived for a time, although services would later cease on almost all the route. The North Kerry line from Limerick to Tralee survived until the 1970s. One notable closure was that of the Dublin & South Eastern Harcourt Street railway line in Dublin, despite being regarded as an important commuter artery. In 2004, part of the route reopened as part of the new Luas tram system. South of the current terminus, decisions taken by CIE and Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, to sell the trackbed through Foxrock and allow houses to be built on it near Shankill respectively will make integrating this route into any future Metro or Luas system difficult.

The Ulster Transport Authority is particularly reviled in railway circles. In a few short years, a large network across Ulster was shut down, leaving only Belfast to Derry, Dublin and branches to Larne and Bangor. CIÉ, the transport company in the Republic, had no option but to close their end of cross-border routes. Today a gaping hole remains in the island's rail network, with a distance of 130 miles from Derry to Mullingar untouched by railways, and no rail service to large towns such as Letterkenny and Monaghan.

Steady as she goes

The 1970s and 1980s saw a long period without substantial investment in the rail system, with the notable exception of the DART. Most rail and rolling stock had enough of a working lifespan remaining to get by. However, upkeep and maintenance also suffered, leading to a deteriorating quality of service and reliability. Safety also suffered, to the point where decisive action was required after a nasty rail accident on the route to Sligo.

1976 saw the introduction of a small fleet of 18 high-speed diesel-electric locomotives built by General Motors Electro-Motive Diesel at La Grange, Illinois. These 2475hp units, CIE class 071, were capable of speeds of 90 miles per hour and immediately began operating express services such as the Cork-Dublin line.

August 1, 1980 saw the worst transportation disaster in recent times with 18 people killed and 62 injured in a rail accident in Buttevant on the main Cork-Dublin line. A train carrying 230 passengers was derailed when it crashed into a siding at 70 MPH. This accident led to a major review of the national rail safety policy and resulted in the rapid elimination of the wooden-bodied coaches that had formed part of the train. The passengers who were most severely injured or killed were seated in coaches with wooden frames. This structure was incapable of surviving a high speed crash and did not come near to the safety standards provided by modern (post 1950s) metal bodied coaches.

In the aftermath of Buttevant, both CIE and the Government were under severe public pressure to improve safety and to modernise the fleet, eliminating the wooden bodied rolling stock that had failed so badly during the incident.

The decision to purchase a new fleet of modern intercity coaches based on the British Rail Mark 3 design was quickly made. These coaches, an already well proven design, were built by BREL in Derby, England and, under licence, at CIE's own workshops at Inchicore in Dublin between 1980 and 1989.
Other carriages to join the fleet in the 1980s were second-hand ex British Rail Mark 3s,

Cutbacks were also experienced, with the closure of the line to Youghal in County Cork and the removal of the North Kerry line.

The DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) was a bright light in an otherwise bleak rail era for Ireland. The north-south commuter route in and out of Dublin was electrified, and new frequent services ran from 1984 onwards. It was intended to expand the service, with routes to the west of the city, but economic conditions militated against this. In fact, the size of the DART fleet remained unaltered until the mid-1990s.

Rail revival

Fortunately, in the 1990s, the Republic experienced an economic boom (known colloquially as the Celtic tiger). This allowed substantial investment to be made. 34 new locomotives (designated 201 Class) were purchased from General Motors, including 2 for NIR. New De Dietrich carriages were also purchased for the cross-border 'Enterprise' service. Meanwhile the route network was also being upgraded to continuous welded rail (CWR) and old mechanical signalling was replaced by electronic signalling.

In the mid-1990s, the greater Dublin area continued to experience a population boom. Such commuter trains as existed were ageing slam-door stock on unreliable old locomotives (the better stock was for intercity use). The DART was limited in terms of capacity and route. New diesel railcars were ordered, and added first to the Kildare suburban route. The route to Maynooth was double-tracked and further diesel railcars ordered. Again, the North-South Dublin route saw new railcars provide services to Drogheda and Arklow. A number of orders were made for new DART carriages, the first in over a decade.

The DART and suburban stations were also upgraded, allowing disabled access with new elevators at footbridges and lengthened platforms to accommodate 8-car sets. Extra roads were provided out of Dublin, while the main terminals of Connolly Station and Heuston Station were upgraded (the latter completed in 2004, doubling its previous capacity). A new railcar servicing depot was built at Drogheda (Inchicore continues to be used for locomotives and carriages).

Northern Ireland too has experienced recent rail investment. Central Station has been redesigned, while a more direct route out of Belfast was reopened for trains to Derry. The line to Bangor was relaid. A new railcar fleet has entered service. The single-track line to Derry, north of Coleraine continues to be of a poor standard. A derailment in 2003 caused by cliff-side boulders falling onto the line, closed the route for some time. In the face of long journey times and a frequent (and generally faster) bus service, the route's future remains in some doubt.

The future

Iarnród Éireann placed orders for 67 intercity carriages in 2003 and for 150 "regional railcars" (DMUs) in 2004. These will mostly go towards meeting demand on the railways, although some older carriages are due for retirement, and at peak times, capacity is below requirements. It is suspected that Iarnród Éireann wish to phase out all locomotive hauled services other than those using the 67 new intercity carriages. The existing 100 newest carriages (only from the 1980s) may be phased out with capacity being taken up by regional railcars. More orders of suburban railcars and DARTs are likely, but the Dublin suburban routes are almost at capacity. “Four-tracking” of the route north of Dublin and west to Kildare has commenced.

Some call for the expansion of the rail network in the Republic. The route from Limerick to Waterford is due to have a realistic service for the first time in decades. Nevertheless, this is the only non-Dublin intercity route in existence, which has earned the railway network in Ireland the colloquial title of "Paleways" or "Palerail" (derived from The Pale). A railway right of way exists from Limerick, up through the west, to Sligo. This has been titled the Western Railway Corridor (WRC) and some see it as a possible counterbalance to investment in Dublin. Parts of the line itself are of questionable integrity. The most sensible proposals are to extend from Ennis to Athenry, then from Athenry to Tuam, with an extension from Tuam to Claremorris to link up with the Westport/Ballina line to Dublin. The proposed WRC extension from Claremorris to Sligo encompasses a particularly bad section of track; although some WRC advocates suggest beginning with that section, this plan seems unrealistic, in the absence of dedicated action by the relevant local authorities to concentrate housing in towns served by the WRC.

There is no longer a railway system in Co. Donegal. The service stops at Sligo from Dublin, and at Derry from Belfast. It may be feasible to extend a line north from Sligo through Ballyshannon, to Donegal Town, Letterkenny and then north-east to meet up with a new line from Derry towards Letterkenny. This would link Donegal with the rest of Ireland and with important trade centres within Northern Ireland. A branch line west from Donegal Town towards Killybegs would restore the previous rail service closed in 1960. The population of Donegal is expanding rapidly and deserves to have a rail service, it would benefit many aspects of daily life, and also help to boost tourism, one of the major industries in the area.

Northern Ireland Railways look to continue to be in a precarious position. The new railcars, it is hoped, will boost the survival chances of the 'non-core network' (ColeraineDerry and WhiteheadLarne). A so-called consultation process is ongoing as part of a suspected closure timetable by the Department of Regional Development (the direct-rule replacement for Northern Ireland's transport minister). The collaborative Enterprise service is also in some trouble. Infrastructure works to upgrade Dublin's rail network resulted in bus transfers for part of the journey until early 2005. At the same time, the rail fare is now a significant incentive to travel by bus or car, utilising the new Motorways between the two cities. As a final blow, reliability is at an all-time low, due to unresolved operational difficulties in locomotives supplying power to carriages (Head end power).

See also

External links

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