History of rail transport in Ireland

History of rail transport in Ireland

:"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 19 km (12 mi) 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 10 km (6 mi). [cite book|author=Murray, K. A.|title=Ireland's First Railway|year=1981|publisher=Irish Railway Record Society|location=Dublin|isbn=0-904078-07-8] Due to local opposition the first terminus, "Kingstown Harbour", was adjacent to the West Pier. It took a further three years before the line reached the site of present station.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 9 October 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, 1,435 mm (4 ft 8½ in).

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 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in). 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 in Brazil.

The first three railways all had different gauges: the "Dublin and Kingstown Railway", 1,435 mm (4 ft 8½ in); the "Ulster Railway", 1,880 mm (6 ft 2 in); and the "Dublin and Drogheda Railway", 1,575 mm (5 ft 2 in). 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 2,140 mm (7 ft 0¼ in) and Stephenson's 1,435 mm (4 ft 8½ in), leaving gauges between 1,524 mm (5 ft) and 1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in). By splitting the difference, a compromise Irish gauge of 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in) was adopted.

Main line railways

By the beginning of the 20th century, the main line railways were:
* Belfast and County Down Railway (B&CDR) incorporated 1846, first section opened 1848, 128 km (80 mi)
* Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway (CB&SCR) incorporated 1845, first section opened 1851, 150 km (93.75 mi)
* County Donegal Railways Joint Committee (CDRJC) operated jointly by the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) and the Midland Railway (England). Narrow gauge. The parent line opened 1863, 178 km (111 mi)
* Dublin and South Eastern Railway (D&SER (formerly Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway) incorporated 1846, first section opened 1856, 256 km (160 mi). The Dublin and Kingstown Railway was part of that system.
* Great Northern Railway (Ireland) (GNR(I)) incorporated 1876 (the "Ulster Railway", one of its constituents, dates from 1836) first section opened 1839, 970 km (606 mi).
* Great Southern and Western Railway (GSWR) first section incorporated 1844 (a large number of smaller railways were incorporated between 1871 and 1901), 1794 km (1121 mi)
* Midland Great Western Railway (MGWR) incorporated 1845, 861 km (538 mi).
* Midland Railway Northern Counties Committee (NCC) first section incorporated 1845, first section opened 1848, amalgamated with the Midland Railway in 1903, 424 km (265.25 mi).

Other railways

* Completely independent
** Ballycastle Railway 26 km (16.25 mi) (914 mm (3 ft) gauge); incorporated 1878, opened 1880; four locomotives, 74 other vehicles
** Bessbrook and Newry Light Railway (electric) 3 miles (5 km) (914 mm (3 ft) gauge); incorporated 1884; one locomotive, 24 other vehicles
** Castlederg and Victoria Bridge Tramway 12 km (7.25 mi); (914 mm (3 ft) gauge); incorporated 1883, opened 1884; three locomotives, 34 other vehicles; closed 1933
** Cavan and Leitrim Light Railway 78 km (48.5 mi); (914 mm (3 ft) gauge); incorporated 1883, opened 1888; nine locomotives, 167 other vehicles
** Cavehill and Whitewell Tramway 6 km (3.75 mi)
** Clogher Valley Railway 59 km (37 mi)(914 mm (3 ft) gauge); incorporated 1884, opened 1887; seven locomotives, 127 other vehicles; closed 1942
** Clonakilty Extension Light Railway 14 km (8.75 mi); (914 mm (3 ft) gauge); incorporated 1881, opened 1886
** Cork and Macroom Direct Railway 38 km (24.5 mi); incorporated 1861, opened 1866; four locomotives, 132 other vehicles
** Cork and Muskerry Light Railway (C&MLR) 29 km (18 mi); (914 mm (3 ft) gauge); incorporated 1883, opened 1887; six locomotives, 87 other vehicles
*** Donoughmore Extension Railway 14 km (9 mi) (worked by C&MLR) incorporated 1900
** Cork, Blackrock and Passage Railway 26 km (16 mi); (originally Irish gauge, 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in);converted to 914 mm 914 mm (3 ft) gauge in 1900); incorporated 1846, opened 1850; four locomotives, 57 other vehicles
** Dublin and Blessington Steam Tramway 25 km (15.5 mi); (1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in) gauge); incorporated 1887, opened 1888; four locomotives, 46 other vehicles
** Dublin and Lucan Electric Railway 11 km (7 mi); 600 mm (1 ft 11⅝ in) gauge 37 vehicles
** Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway 42 km (26.5 mi); incorporated 1863; six locomotives, 230 other vehicles
** Giant's Causeway, Portrush and Bush Valley Railway & Tramway 13 km (8 mi); (914 mm (3 ft) gauge); incorporated 1880; two locomotives, 23 other vehicles
** Listowel and Ballybunion Railway 16 km (10 mi); (Monorail) (Lartigue system); incorporated 1886, opened 1888; three locomotives, 39 other vehicles
** Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway (L&LSR) 133 km (83 mi); (914 mm (3 ft) gauge); opened 1863/1904 extension; 18 locomotives, 311 other vehicles
*** Letterkenny Railway 26 km (16 mi); worked by L&LSR; opened 1883
** Schull and Skibbereen Railway 22 km (14 mi); four locomotives, 61 other vehicles
** Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway 78 km (49 mi); 1,435 mm (4 ft 8½ in) gauge; incorporated 1875, opened 1882; 11 locomotives, 228 other vehicles; closed 1957
** South Clare Railway 42 km (26 mi); three locomotives, 27 other vehicles
** Timoleague and Courtmacsherry Railway (T&CR) 14 km (9 mi); (914 mm (3 ft) gauge); incorporated 1888, opened 1891; two locomotives, 119 other vehicles
*** Ballinascarthy Railway; worked by T&CR; (914 mm (3 ft) gauge); incorporated 1888, opened 1890
** Tralee and Dingle Light Railway 60 km (37.5 mi); (914 mm (3 ft) gauge); incorporated 1884, opened 1891; eight locomotives, 108 other vehicles
** Waterford and Tramore Railway 12 km (7.25 mi); incorporated 1851, opened 1853; four locomotives, 32 other vehicles; unique in being the only line to remain unconnected to the rest of the Irish railway. The line closed, under CIE, in 1960
** West Clare Railway 43 km (27 mi); (914 mm (3 ft) gauge); opened 1887; eight locomotives, 146 other vehicles
* Worked by CB&SCR
** Clonakilty Extension Railway 14 km (8.75 mi); opened 1886
* Worked by CDJC
** Strabane and Letterkenny Railway 31 km (19.5 mi); opened 1909
* Worked by D&SER
** City of Dublin Junction Railway 2 km (1.25 mi); opened 1891
** Dublin and Kingstown Railway 10 km (6 mi); opened 1834
** New Ross and Waterford Extension Railway 22 km (13.5 mi); opened 1904
* Worked by GNR(I)
** Castleblayney, Keady and Armagh Railway 29 km (18.25 mi); opened 1909
* Worked by GSWR (1,435 mm (4 ft 8½ in) gauge)
** Athenry and Tuam Extension Light Railway 27 km (17 mi)
** Baltimore Extension Light Railway 13 km (8 mi)
** Tralee and Fenit Railway 13 km (8 mi); opened 1887
** Waterford, New Ross and Wexford Junction Railway 5 km (3.25 mi) (leased from D&SER)
* Worked by MGWR (1,435 mm (4 ft 8½ in) gauge)
** Ballinrobe and Claremorris Railway 19 km (12 mi); opened 1892
** Loughrea and Attymon Railway 14 km (9 mi) opened 1890
* Worked by NCCMid (1,435 mm (4 ft 8½ in) gauge)
** Carrickfergus Harbour Junction Light Railway 2 km (1 mi); 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 150 km (93.75 mi), 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 1880 mm (6 ft 2 in), 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 and Drogheda Railway (D&D), also incorporated 1839, opened in 1844.
* the Irish North Western Railway (INWR), incorporated in 1862 in a merger between the Dundalk and Enniskillen Railway and the Enniskillen and Londonderry Railway, operated from Dundalk and Portadown via Enniskillen and Omagh to Derry.
* the Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway (D&BJct), incorporated in 1845 and opened in stages between 1849 and 1853.

In 1875, the D&D and the D&BJct 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 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; 13 km (8 mi) 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 Galway and Clifden via (Athlone); there were a number of branch lines:
* Kingscourt via Navan,
* Nesbitt Junction (near Enfield) to Edenderry,
* Sligo, with further branches to Cavan Town and Ballaghaderreen,
* Westport with further branches to Ballinrobe and Killala via Ballina in County Mayo,
* Attymon Junction to Loughrea.The Railway was first incorporated in 1845.

Northern Counties Committee

:"Main articles": Northern Counties Committee, Midland RailwayThe 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.


The Listowel and Ballybunion Railway was opened in 1888. It was the world's first commercial monorail, named the Lartigue system after Charles Lartigue. It operated between Listowel and Ballybunion in County Kerry until 1924.

A modern day re-creation of this system operates in Listowel. Photographs of this can be found here: [http://www.industrialheritageireland.info/railways/interest/lartigue.htm Lartigue Railway Photographs 2004]

The system 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 traction

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.


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.

In a few short years, the Ulster Transport Authority shut down a large network across Ulster, 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 large hole remains in the island's rail network, with a distance of 210 km (130 mi) from Derry to Mullingar untouched by railways, and no rail service to large towns such as Letterkenny and Monaghan.

The 1970s and 1980s

The 1970s and 1980s saw a long period without substantial investment in the rail system, with the notable exception of the DART, in which 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.

Also, 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 convert|2475|hp|abbr=on units, CIE class 071, were capable of speeds of 145 km/h (90 mph) and immediately began operating express services such as the Cork-Dublin line.

August 1, 1980 saw the worst Irish transportation disaster in recent times, when 18 people were 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 110 km/h (70 mph). 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. 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 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 made in this period, including the closure of the line to Youghal in County Cork and the removal of the North Kerry line.

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 two 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). 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 Dundalk and Arklow. A number of orders were made for new DART carriages, the first for over a decade.

DART and suburban stations were also upgraded, allowing disabled access with new lifts 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.

In March 2007, as part of the Transport 21 initiative, Docklands railway station opened, the first new station in Dublin city centre since 1891's Tara Street.

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 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. This will see the line 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. Future proposals will see the line extended to Sligo, where it will also link with Knock Airport.

Northern Ireland Railways will undergo a major investment programme over the next few years, with track upgrades to the line between Belfast and Derry and up to 20 new trains replacing the remaining rolling stock.


ee also

* History of rail transport
* Rail transport in Ireland
* Diesel Locomotives of Ireland
* Buttevant Rail Disaster
* Armagh rail disaster
* History of Ireland
* Irish Railway Bibliography
* Northern Ireland Railways
* Irish railway accidents

External links

* [http://www.meathontrack.com/navandroghedarailway.html Photo Survey of Navan's existing former GNR railway line]
* [http://www.irishrailwaynews.com Irish Railway News -reporting on all aspects of irish railways]
* [http://www.cie.ie/about_us/schools_and_enthusiasts.asp CIÉ website — background history on transport in Ireland]
* [http://www.platform11.org Platform 11 - Ireland's National Rail Users Group]
* [http://www.rpsi-online.org/schools/irishrailwaysystem.htm includes short history, important dates, map]
* [http://www.meathontrack.com Meath on Track campaign]
* [http://www.industrialheritageireland.info/railways/index.htm Railway Clearing House Junction Maps, photographs, location of mining related railways, survey of Attymon Junction to Loughrea trackbed]
* [http://www.eiretrains.com Eiretrains - A photo archive of Irish Railway Stations both current & abandoned with a brief history]

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