Sixty years ago today, the first part of Northern Ireland’s once-extensive railway service quite literally came to the end of the line. The axe had fallen on the Belfast & County Down Railway,which had served its rural east Down community for a hundred years. The railway stations south of Comber fell quiet and an eerie silence descended upon mile after mile of deserted track.
No longer would the rumble of trains of passenger-filled carriages pass on their way to Castlewellan or Newcastle, making their stops at Ballygowan, Saintfield, Ballynahinch Junction, Crossgar, or Dundrum, or perhaps branching off beyond Downpatrick to wander across country to Ardglass.Later that year, on April 22, 1950, services from Belfast to Comber – stopping at Bloomfield, Neill’s Hill, Knock and Dundonald – and on to Newtownards and Donaghadee also ceased.
The last train from Newcastle was described by local newspapers as ‘like a farewell party for a beloved friend’. The train left Newcastle to Belfast at eight minutes past seven on 15th January 1950. Someone pulled the communication cord when the train was stationary at Crossgar, several window straps disappeared, and detonators on the track, which are usually reserved for fogs, made the journey a noisy one at intervals. Passengers were even getting the train crew to autograph their tickets.
Cheering crowds assembled at Dundrum, Downpatrick and other intermediate stations. A record number of platform tickets were sold at Newcastle, and people stood in the doors of their houses and waved a farewell as the train passed. There were even some eyes which were not quite dry, including those of the train crew, guards Jimmy Pettigrew (who had served on the BCDR for 37 years) and William Johnston and driver Barney Malone and fireman James Hill.
At Newcastle objectors to the closure made their protest by sticking slogans on the carriage windows and a large placard, shaped like a tombstone, hung at the rear of the guards van, was removed by officials before the train left the station. It read: “In memory, BCDR born 1869, coordinated 1950, aged 81. Executioners: Brooke and the Pope,” referring to the Stormont Ministers who had sanctioned the closure. Other slogans, some of which had been partially torn off by the time the train reached Belfast, were: “We’ll bus-seeing you,” “Stand in the rain, stand in the ‘bus,” “A ‘bus is b-U-T-A substitute,” and “UTA, highest fares in Europe.”
There were 300 people on that train, many travelling to the next station and making their own way back just to say they were on the last train. There were two engines on the train, which arrived in Belfast’s Queen’s Quay station at 8.49pm, 14 minutes behind schedule.
But why was it closed? Up to the 1940s, the railway network in Northern Ireland was operated by three main railway companies: the London Midland and Scottish Railway, better known as the Northern Counties, at York Road Station; the Great Northern Railway of Ireland at Great Victoria Street Station; and the Belfast and County Down Railway at Queen’s Quay Station. In 1948, for financial reasons, the Stormont government decided to nationalise the network and amalgamate the LMS and BCDR with the state-owned bus operator, the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board, to form the Ulster Transport Authority.
A tribunal was set up to consider how this could be best achieved and provide an integrated transport system. Railway chiefs hoped the tribunal would recommend that the bus services should no longer compete with the railways, but instead act as ‘feeder’ services from the countryside to the major stations. But to their despair the tribunal recommended that the entire BCDR main line from Belfast to Newcastle, including the branches to Donaghadee, Ballynahinch and Ardglass should close, and all operations transferred to buses. The only exception would be the Bangor branch.
The simple reason for the closures was that, after being run into the ground during the Second World War, the railways needed a huge amount of investment to modernise them. It was considered cheaper to provide a replacement bus service. It came as a complete shock to many people, especially the axing of the Belfast-Comber line, which served Dundonald, and the line onwards to Newtownards, areas where, as with the Bangor line, the expanding suburban population was already guaranteeing healthy commuter traffic.
The 1950 closures were only the first step taken by the Stormont Government in shrinking the railway network, eventually by two-thirds – from 754 miles to 297 miles, a process begun a good thirteen years before Dr. Beeching began his chopping of British Railways. However, today, the Downpatrick & County Down Railway – based at the town’s former BCDR terminus – keeps the memory alive through its restoration of a portion of the former main line to Inch Abbey, and has a museum dedicated to artefacts from the old line.
The museum is also hoping, in the near future, to complete a kilometre long extension of their line to Ballydugan on the old Newcastle line
As part of its commemorations of the BCDR’s demise, it is appealing for anyone with any memorabilia of the old line – especially photograph, but also tickets, timetables or even carriages! They are also keen to record, for an oral history of the line, the memories of any former BCDR veterans still around whom they have not yet been able to track down. If you can help, email us now!