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History of the Railways


Overview  |  Belfast and County Down Railway | Downpatrick and County Down Railway

1845 Map of Ireland

1845 map showing actual and proposed
railway lines for Ireland
Click for a larger image


Railways in Ireland

The Railways of Ireland in 1887
taken from the Pocket Atlas of Ireland
by J. Bartholomew, F.R.G.S.
Click for a larger image


1906 Viceregal Commission rail map of Ireland
In 1906 the Viceregal Commission
compiled this railway map of Ireland
Click for a larger image


A Shrinking Network

This map shows the reduction of Ireland's
railway network since 1925

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.

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:
Irish Railway Record Society
Wikipedia - History of rail transport in Ireland
H.C. Casserly - Outline of Irish Railway History
D. Coakham - The Belfast & County Down Railway



 

The Belfast & Co. Down Railway

The Crest of the Belfast & County Down Railway, incorporating the arms of Belfast & Down

The Crest of the Belfast & County Down Railway, incorporating the arms of Belfast & Down
Click for Larger Image
Contemporary BCDR map showing the
network at its greatest size
Early 1900s postcard of the newly built Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, adjacent to the railway station
Early 1900s postcard of the newly built Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, adjacent to the railway station
A colour postcard showing the BCDR's Queen's Quay terminus prior to reconstruction in 1911
A colour postcard showing the BCDR's Queen's Quay terminus prior to reconstruction in 1911
An engine runs-round its train under the post-1911 train shed, which covered the station's five platforms

An engine runs-round its train under the post-1911 train shed, which covered the station's five platforms

Queen's Quay as seen in its UTA days
Queen's Quay as seen in its UTA days
Comber was an important junction, where the line for Newtownards/Donaghadee split from the main line to Newcastle. It also served the Andrews Linen Mill, which had its own siding.
Comber was an important junction, where the line for Newtownards/Donaghadee split from the main line to Newcastle. It also served the Andrews Linen Mill, which had its own siding.
Saintfield, still largely intact as a private residence, was one of the intermediate stations on the main line
Saintfield, still largely intact as a private residence, was one of the intermediate stations on the main line
Ballynahnich Junction, where the Ballynahinch line left the main line, was in the middle of nowhere between Saintfield and Crossgar
Ballynahnich Junction, where the Ballynahinch line left the main line, was in the middle of nowhere between Saintfield and Crossgar
Ballynahnich Station, what was hoped to be a through station on the line's way to Dromore ended up a terminus
Ballynahnich Station, what was hoped to be a through station on the line's way to Dromore ended up a terminus
Downpatrick Station in the 1940s, the site is now occupied by a supermarket, in front of the St. Patrick's Centre
Downpatrick Station in the 1940s, the site is now occupied by a supermarket, in front of the St. Patrick's Centre
A train prepares to leave Downpatrick Station
A train prepares to leave Downpatrick Station
Downpatrick Loop Platform in January 1950. This is the only surviving BCDR structure in Downpatrick, was were passengers from Belfast-Newcastle trains could change for the Downpatrick-Ardglass branch service
Downpatrick Loop Platform in January 1950. This is the only surviving BCDR structure in Downpatrick, was were passengers from Belfast-Newcastle trains could change for the Downpatrick-Ardglass branch service
Tullymurry was the first intermediate station beyond Downpatrick, and still stands virtually intact
Tullymurry was the first intermediate station beyond Downpatrick, and still stands virtually intact
The terminus, Newcastle Station,  at the base of the Mourne Mountains
The terminus, Newcastle Station,
at the base of the Mourne Mountains
A coal-guzzling BCDR 'Baltic' tank leads its train along the Bangor Branch line
A coal-guzzling BCDR 'Baltic' tank leads its train along the Bangor Branch line
Having just run round its train, a BCDR tank engine prepares to leave Bangor bound for Belfast
Having just run round its train, a BCDR tank engine prepares to leave Bangor bound for Belfast
Colourised postcard of the BCDR's Bangor terminus
Colourised postcard of the BCDR's Bangor terminus
Donaghadee station, where the BCDR had hoped
Donaghadee station, where the BCDR had hoped
to run boat trains to catch ships to Portpatrick
The now preserved No. 30 leads it train into the now derelict Ardglass Station shortly before closure on the 14th January 1950
The now preserved No. 30 leads it train into the now derelict Ardglass Station shortly before closure on the 14th January 1950
Castlewellan was where the BCDR met the GNR(I) for the second time (the other being at Central Junction, now near NIR's Bridge End station)
Castlewellan was where the BCDR met the GNR(I) for the second time (the other being at Central Junction, now near NIR's Bridge End station)
A cuckoo in the nest? GNR No. 39 prepares to leave Newcastle. GNR trains to Newcastle lasted five years more than their BCDR counterparts
A cuckoo in the nest? GNR No. 39 prepares to leave Newcastle. GNR trains to Newcastle lasted five years more than their BCDR counterparts
BCDR Baltic No. 22 awaits its fate in the ruins of the engine shed in the mid 1950s at Queens Quay
BCDR Baltic No. 22 awaits its fate in the ruins of the engine shed in the mid 1950s at Queens Quay

The Belfast and County Down Railway Company operated a system for 100 years between 1848 and 1948, which at its peak covered 80 miles, exclusively within County Down.

The railway scheme came into being with 'a meeting of parties favourable to the promotion of a railway to Holywood, Comber and Newtownards' in February 1845, held in the Donegall Arms Hotel, Belfast, and the company itseld was incorporated in 26 June 1846.

This was during the height of 'Railway Mania' when numerous railway companies were formed, usually competing with each other to build in the same area.

The BCDR, familiarly known as the 'County Down', was no exception and had several rivals within the county, including the Great County Down Railway and the Holywood Atmospheric Railway. The BCDR bought off the Holywood Atmospheric Railway and a degree of compromise was reached with the Great County Down, so in June 1846 the BCDR obtained the Act of Parliament necessary to build the railway.

On the 2nd August 1848 with the first section of line from Belfast to Holywood opened to passenger traffic for the first time. Later this line would extend to Bangor and the main line would run from Belfast to Newcastle, with branches to Donaghadee, Ballynahinch and Ardglass.

Despite its size, the County Down was not an unimaginative railway, although most passenger services were catered for by uncomfortable and shaky six-wheeled carriages right up until the UTA takeover in 1948. The railway ran its own paddle-steamer service (the Bangor Boat) until 1915 and ran bus services to towns not connected by rail.

The County Down had 12 different classes of steam engines during its life, and was not afraid to try out several experimental types of engine, most notable the Holywood Railmotors, bogie carriages with locomotives built onto the end, which were highly successful, operating a shuttle service between Holywood and Belfast.

Less successful were the 'Baltic' class of locomotives. These required huge amounts of coal and were unsuited to the main line as they were too heavy, being relegated to the Bangor line. The County Down also ran the first ever diesel-electric locomotive in Ireland, D1 (later renumbered No.2) was built by Harland and Wolff shipyards and was used on the Ballynahinch line. Another diesel-electric locomotive was hired from Harland and Wolff, No.28, which operated the Ardglass line.

The County Down also played a vital role in the promotion of tourism in the Newcastle, with the construction of the Slieve Donard Hotel in 1897 and helping to form the Down Royal Golf Course, running the weekly 'Golfers' Express' from Belfast to Newcastle.


The Belfast and County Down Main Line

The original scheme envisaged the line built from Queen's Quay in Belfast to the towns of Holywood, Comber, Newtownards, Bangor via Conlig, Donaghadee, Killinchy, Killyleagh and Downpatrick.

Progress was slow at first and the company decided to concentrate on the Belfast-Holywood and Belfast-Newtownards sections for the time being. Work on the lines was contracted out to William Dargan (who was responsible for building Ireland's first railway, the Dublin and Kingstown) with the single-track Holywood line opening in August 1848 and the Newtownards line opening in May 1850, with a gala opening day on 6th May 1850.

By this time the powers granted in the 1846 Act of Parliament had lapsed and had to be renewed before work could start towards Downpatrick. A new Act of Parliament was obtained in 1855, and saw the original scheme redrawn from the Killinchy/Killyleagh alignment to serve the towns of Ballygowan, Saintfield and Crossgar.

This new route passed through some difficult terrain and required many rock cuttings. The most notable one between Comber and Ballygowan was known as 'the gullet', now filled in. In between Saintfield and Crossgar another branch was built to the market town of Ballynahinch, opening on the 10th September 1858. Although a terminus, the station was built as a through-station, in the forlorn hope of extending the line to Dromore.

The mainline to Downpatrick was opened 23rd March 1859. Although enough land was purchased between Comber and Downpatrick to allow double track to be laid, and overbridges built to accomodate double track, this entire section remained single track throughout its life.

A couple of years later in 1861 it was thought that a southern extension to the railway might be possible when the Downpatrick and Newry Railway Company hoped to connect the County Down with the Newry, Warrenpoint and Rostrevor Railway. However, although shares were issued, the scheme failed to emerge and it was not until 1866 when the Downpatrick, Dundrum and Newcastle Railway Act was passed that a southern extension became a reality.

The DDNR was originally an independent company, but a latter Act of Parliament in 1868 allowed the BCDR to invest in the company, effectively making it a parent company to the DDNR. The line opened in March 1869, operated by the County Down for 12 years until completely taken over by the County Down.

As this extension was a separate development from the original line, trains from Belfast had to enter Downpatrick station, run the engine around the carriages and then proceed to Newcastle. In order to over come this an avoiding line was built just outside Downpatrick, linking the Belfast and Newcastle lines. A small platform was built at the junction of the new line and the Newcastle line to allow passenger to disembark and board a branch train to Downpatrick, or later to Ardglass.

The main line between Ballymacarrett and Knock was doubled from 1877 onwards. As traffic increased two further sections of line were doubled. This work began around 1892 on the main line from Knock to Comber and also the line to Bangor. The latter was done in stages and completed in 1902. The rest of the network remained single track throughout its lifetime.


The Bangor Branch

Both Acts of Parliaments granted to the County Down gave them the power to build to Bangor via a branch off the Donaghadee line at Conlig, but after several years the company's Board of Directors decided against this plan and allowed the powers to lapse in 1861. In 1865 another company had arrived on the scene as well - the Belfast, Holywood and Bangor Railway. This company had persuaded Parliament and landowners to carry on the line from Holywood along the shore of Belfast Lough towards Bangor.

A separate station was built at Holywood and two notable stations at Cultra and Helen's Bay were built to serve the area's landowners before reaching Bangor. The line opened to traffic in May 1865. From 1859 the BCDR was suffering from increasingly worrying financial problems and in an attempt to ease these problems sold the Belfast-Holywood stretch of line to the BHBR, giving that company access to the city, although the BCDR required the BHBR to build a separate station at Queen's Quay.

Eight years later, in an effort to clear itself of heavy debts the BHBR leased its line to the County Down in 1874. In 1884 an Act of Parliament transferred all the BHBR assets to the County Down. All BHBR rolling stock was taken into the County Down's fleet and renumbered. The two stations were linked by opening a doorway between the two stations, but a complete renovation in 1911 merged the two stations, taking in the BHBR platforms and adding an impressive new glass canopy over the platforms.


The Donaghadee Branch

The BCDR itself, however, was now concentrating on finishing the branch line to Donaghadee, on which work had temporarily halted at Newtownards in 1850. The line opened in June 1861 and it was hoped that the railway could tap in to the steamer services between Donaghadee and the Scottish port of Portpatrick. However, Portpatrick was far too open to storms and rough seas for any regular service to occur and soon the main steamer services ran from Larne to Stranraer, and Donaghadee was unable to offer the County Down Railway any traffic from Scotland.


The Ardglass Branch

The branch line to Ardglass came about from indirect government aid to the herring industry. Ardglass was a busy fishing port, but had a small population so the majority of traffic was goods. The line left the Belfast-Newcastle line about half a mile south of Downpatrick Loop Platform and was built as inexpensively as possible, there were few earthworks and numerous short, steep gradients.

The line was begun 1890 with the granting of the Downpatrick, Killough & Ardglass Railway Act, obtained under the Light Railways (Ireland) Act, although in reality the line did not differ much from the rest of the BCDR system when built. It opened in 1892 and stations were built at the Downpatrick racecourse, Ballynoe, Killough and Ardglass, with halts at Coney Island and Bright built later.

A small stretch of line from Ardglass Station down to the harbour was laid so that fishing boats could unload directly into wagons, but this was rarely used and was soon lifted.


The Castlewellan Branch

With Newcastle becoming a popular tourist resort, the much larger Great Northern Railway (Ireland), operator of the Belfast to Dublin line, sought to expand into the town. The company already had a branch line through Banbridge which terminated at the small hamlet of Ballyroney, 18 miles from Newcastle, and wanted to build from there through Castlewellan down into Newcastle.

The County Down fought against these proposals but in the end a compromise was reached - the Great Northern was to build from Ballyroney to Castlewellan and the County Down was to build from Newcastle to Castlewellan.

The line opened in March 1906, and Castlewellan Station was run jointly by the two companies, the BCDR maintaining the run-round loop while the GNR(I) maintaining the station and the signalling, but crucially, the GNR(I) would have running powers to Newcastle. In return the BCDR got running powers to Ballyroney, although they had argued for running rights to Scarva.

This was a small hamlet and as such these powers had dubious value and were never exercised. The 24th March 1906 saw the arrival of the first GNR(I) trains in Newcastle, and with extra trains running into Newcastle a new station, twice the size of the original, was opened in the same year.


The Central Line

Although not part of the BCDR network, the Central line was used by both the GNR(I) and the County Down for excursion trains. The line was built by the Belfast Central Railway with the intention of connecting the BCDR, the GNR(I) and the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway, which later became part of the London Midland and Scottish Railway.

The Act of Parliament was granted in 1864, but as land was expensive around the City the Central was soon in financial difficulties. A new Act and a new Board of Directors in 1872 pushed work forward. The line ran from a junction half a mile south of Great Victoria Street to a station at Queen's Bridge, with a branch from the Albert Bridge to the County Down, joining the line close to Ballymacarrett Junction. The company soon lost out to competition from tramways and was bought over by the GNR(I) which ended passenger traffic, using the line for goods and excursion trains to Bangor.

Later a tunnel was built under the end of Queen's Bridge, connecting the Central line with the LMS (NCC), but this was only used for goods traffic.


Early 20th Century

The period after the start of the 20th Century was really the heyday of the BCDR system. In 1914 company dividends peaked at 6½%. War broke out in August that year. Passenger receipts increased especially with traffic to the army base at Ballykinlar which had an unadvertised halt for a period from 1915.

After the war there followed a period of unregulated competition from bus operators. At one particular time there were no less than 27 private bus services operating within County Down alone! This competition was especially felt in towns where the railway journey was longer than the equivalent road journey to Belfast. In areas close to Belfast the tram also was a major competitor. The extension of the tram line to Knock in 1905 led to cut throat competition for the commuter ticket.


The Ards Tourist Trophy Races

The RAC's Tourist Trophy was the prize for a series of road races first and was competed for on the Isle of Man between 1905 and 1922. It was later revived from 1928 to 1936 with a new 13½ mile circuit in County Down. The course was roughly triangular and linked Dundonald, Newtownards and Comber. The start was at Quarry Corner and the route raced clockwise.

The BCDR main line crossed the route 4 times. Firstly at the site of the first Newtownards station. Next at Glass Moss level crossing, (1½ miles from Comber towards Newtownards). Thirdly under the bridge at Comber station and then lastly under the iron trellis bridge at Dundonald station. The photograph shows the hairpin bend at the Central Bar in Dundonald. This event proved to be a great tourist attraction and many people travelled by train to watch the practise sessions and the races themselves.

The BCDR took advantage of the situation by offering cheap fares and even building a semi-permanent grandstand at Comber. Glass Moss itself was not a normal halt but became so during the races. The trains could not cross the road and operated to here from either side. The races ended in 1936 after a terrible accident in Newtownards when 8 spectators were killed on the footpath near the Strangford Inn Hotel by an out of control car.


Second World War and the Ballymacarrett Accident

Before the war, competition from road passenger and freight services was stiff and the railway was beginning to show the signs of declining profits.

During the Second World War the BCDR saw a considerable increase in traffic. This was mainly due to traffic arising from evacuees from Belfast who were living outside the city and also troop movements.

On a foggy morning on the 10th January 1945 there was a fatal accident at Ballymacarrett in East Belfast. A railmotor train from Holywood collided with the 7.10 am train from Bangor which was stopped awaiting a signal change. 22 people were killed and a further 24 people injured. The enquiry into the accident placed the blame on the driver of the railmotor for travelling too fast for the poor visibility and also on the company's rules relating to the passing of signals at 'danger'.

The company paid out a sum of £80,000 in compensation. This was a figure the company could ill afford and it wiped out its Contingencies Reserve. This coupled with declining post-war traffic was one of the factors that led to the transfer of the company to public ownership.


The End of the Line

In 1946 the Northern Ireland Government announced that it was planning to bring the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board, the BCDR and the LMS (NCC) under one body to be known as the Ulster Transport Authority. The UTA came into being in September 1948 and the independent life of the railways was ended, except for the Great Northern which was not absorbed for ten years due to the complex legal arrangements of its cross-border nature.

Apart from new rolling stock from the NCC, running of the County Down lines remained unchanged until 1949 when drastic cuts in services appeared, and from January 1950 all lines south of Comber closed, with the Belfast-Comber-Donaghadee line closing the following April. The UTA found, however, that they were obliged to run the Castlewellan line while Great Northern trains ran on it and this was serviced by the Harland diesel until April 1950, although Great Northern services continued until 1955.

Running on the Bangor line remained unaffected, but the stations at Kinnegar, Marino and Craigavad were closed, although both Marino and Craigavad were soon reopened (with Craigavad closing again a year later) and two new stations and Crawfordsburn and Seahill were opened. The Belfast Central line, which linked the County Down with the rest of the rail network, was split in 1965 when Middlepath Street bridge was removed for road improvements, isolating the Bangor line.

Steam services were gradually replaced from 1953 onwards with the introduction of the Multi-Engined Diesel (MED) railcars, usually running in a three set formation. County Down carriages were withdrawn, with the underframes removed for scrap and the carriage bodies sold off.

All of the County Down's fleet of locomotives were scrapped, bar No. 30 which was saved for preservation in the Transport Museum and the two diesels. Diesel engine No. 2 was returned to Harland and Wolff, where it worked the shipyards until the 1970s when it was scrapped. Fellow diesel No. 28 spent the next twenty years shunting at Great Victoria Street Station, and survived until the closure of Great Victoria Street when it succumbed to the cutter's torch.

Throughout its life, the UTA was accused of favouring road transport versus rail transport. Sixty-one percent of the railway lines in Northern Ireland had been closed and further cuts were planned. After much dispute the Transport Bill of 1967 divided the UTA into three separate companies, Northern Ireland Railways, Ulsterbus and Northern Ireland Carriers (for road freight traffic).

In 1972 it was announced that the Bangor line was to be reconnected with the former GNR(I) lines and all services bar the Larne trains were to be re-routed into a new station to be built on the Central line, replacing Great Victoria Street Station and Queen's Quay Station. Work was completed in 1976 and Great Victoria Street Station and Queen's Quay Station were closed and demolished, although Great Victoria Street Station was reopened in 1995. The workshops at Queen's Quay were refurbished to form the Central Services Depot, which was closed in 1996 when the cross-harbour link between Central Station and York Road Station was built.

The main reason given for the closure of the County Down main line was that the towns and villages it serviced were rural and not densely populated. However, within ten years of the closures most towns, for example Dundonald, Comber and Newtownards, had substantially grown in size, virtually guaranteeing commuter traffic.

In the last couple of years, due to increasing car use by commuters, several proposals have been drawn up in regards to the Comber line ranging from reopening the line as it was when closed, to a light railway or a limited size busway. Certainly with the near-critical increase of road congestion, it has been slowly and expensively learnt that the answer to congestion is not to build more roads but to fund alternative forms of transport. Perhaps there's life in the old County Down yet.


BCDR Staff at Downpatrick
This article is dedicated to all those people who worked on the BCDR

References and further reading:
Irish Railway Record Society
Wikipedia - History of rail transport in Ireland
Dundonald Railway Station Then & Now
Irish Railwayana Website
H.C. Casserly - Outline of Irish Railway History
D. Coakham - The Belfast & County Down Railway
Dr. E.M. Patterson - The Belfast & County Down Railway

 




Downpatrick & Co. Down Railway


The view of the trackbed towards Downpatrick in 1983.
The view of the trackbed towards Downpatrick in 1983.
The indentations of the old sleepers could still be seen.

The site of the new Downpatrick Station in the late 1980s. At this time the former BCDR railway yard was a Department of the Environment Road Service depot.
The site of the new Downpatrick Station in the late 1980s. At this time the former BCDR railway yard was a Department of the Environment Road Service depot.

The Station being built, an historic stone facade cladding a modern concrete block construction
The Station being built, an historic stone facade
cladding a modern concrete block construction.

The Downpatrick & County Down Railway (DCDR) was set up in 1985 with the aim of restoring a portion of the former Belfast and County Down Railway as a working railway museum, incorporating the various aspects of Northern Ireland's railway heritage.

The railway project is, to date, the only Irish Standard Gauge railway restoration project ever undertaken in Ireland (Irish standard gauge is five foot three inches as opposed to narrow gauge which is three foot and English standard gauge which is four foot eight and a half inches). The only other example of a Irish standard gauge railway in Northern Ireland is Northern Ireland Railways.

Unlike other railway projects in the British Isles, the DCDR did not have the luxury of moving into the site with a railway infrastructure still intact as has been the case with many other preserved railways in the United Kingdom, which moved in as soon as British Rail moved out.

The original line had been closed on the 15th January 1950 by the newly formed Ulster Transport Authority, which was a nationalised institution set up in 1948 to amalgamate the three independent railway companies (namely the London Midland and Scottish Railway (Northern Counties Committee), the Belfast and County Down Railway and later the Great Northern Railway of Ireland) with the bus and freight operator the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board.

The closure of the line was part of the UTA's rationalisation of the transport system and the line was lifted in 1953, with the trackbed sold off to local farmers, and most of the infrastructure, such as signalling, bridges, etc. removed for scrap. Many stations were retained for use as bus depots, and this was the case with Downpatrick Station. Unfortunately, after Ulsterbus (the bus operating company set up after the break-up of the UTA in 1967) moved out of these premises in the mid-seventies, the station was demolished to make way for a supermarket (which itself has since been razed to the ground ), ten years before the DCDR came into existence. All that remained of the original station complex was a small part of the yard used as a Department of the Environment Roads Service Depot.

However, the tremendous tourism potential in establishing a railway museum at Downpatrick was soon realised. The site of the museum nestled in picturesque countryside in the shadow of Downpatrick Cathedral. The railway could connect the town with an already established, but highly under-visited tourist spot, namely Inch Abbey, as well as another potential attraction, an 18th century corn mill being restored in the small hamlet of Ballydugan located about two miles south of Downpatrick, both of which are a short distance away from the old line.

An added bonus of the project would be that what was nothing but wasteground would be redeveloped into a public amenity, removing an eyesore from the town. The trackbed between these destinations was virtually intact and the majority was generously donated to Down District Council for use by the Railway by Dunleath Estates, though not all - including land to Inch Abbey beyond the Quoile Bridge, and a half-mile to Ballydugan.

In 1995 Phase 1 of the project was completed, with three quarters of a mile of track laid from the town to the only BCDR building that survives in Downpatrick - the Loop Platform and beyond to the reputed grave of the Viking King, Magnus Barefoot.

King Magnus Barefoot was a Viking King who was killed in battle in 1103, and the events of this historic event have been well documented in Norse legend as well as local folklore. However, until the construction of a new halt at the grave site, this site was completely inaccessible for anyone wishing to visit it. As well as this development, Phase 1 has seen the construction of a new station building in 1990 and new workshop facilities. The station building was originally built in the 19th Century as the residence of the manager of the town's gasworks.


The Loop Platform cleared of vegetation, in 1987. Track has been laid and soon trains will run again!
The Loop Platform cleared of vegetation, in 1987.
Track has been laid and soon trains will run again!

Guinness, on loan from the RPSI, heads her train to the  Loop Platform in September 1993
Guinness, on loan from the RPSI, heads her train to the
Loop Platform in September 1993

The Quoile Bridge pier abutments on 13 September 1988, when reinstatement was just a fanciful idea!
The Quoile Bridge pier abutments on 13 September 1988,
when reinstatement was just a fanciful idea!

A historically listed building, it occupied a site on the opposite side of Market Street, but since the closure of the town's gasworks had lain derelict, had been totally gutted by arson attacks and was in a dangerous condition. In a bid to save this important part of the town's industrial heritage, the building was dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt on its current location by the Railway.

This action was a success in two respects: it saved an historic building from being lost forever and provided the Railway with an extremely apt station building. A water tower, formerly of Antrim Station was erected at the end of the bay platform and a signal cabin from King's Bog, Ballyclare, was donated to the Museum by NIR as these once-common buildings are now obsolete in the modern railway network. The cabin was dismantled and re-erected in the same manner as the station building.

Developments such as these have enabled visitors to the railway to view for themselves the operation of a railway station as it would have been for the first part of the century, and to see in use many railway artefacts that are now foreign to the modern railway service. As part of this phase of the project, the Loop Platform was completely restored.

This structure was the only BCDR building in Downpatrick to survive and was originally built a century ago to allow passengers on the Belfast-Newcastle express to disembark and board a branch train to Downpatrick or Ardglass, allowing the express to avoid having to stop at Downpatrick station and having to turn the engine around in order to proceed to Newcastle. However, in the years since the closure the platform had become extremely over-grown and the canopy had deteriorated into a dangerous condition.

The platform was cleared and a replica canopy installed. This platform now serves as an important part of our operations as passengers can change trains for refreshments, or at Halloween and Christmas visit Merlin the Magician or Santa Claus respectively in their very own Grotto coach.

Since then work advanced on Phase 2 of the project, another quarter mile of track was laid towards Ballydugan to the current limit of our land. Also a brand new 2.5 mile extension north to Inch Abbey was laid. This involved the largest single undertaking by the DCDR and was completed in January 1999. When the line was closed many of the bridges were removed for scrap, meaning that in order to complete the Inch Abbey extension the River Quoile would have to be re-bridged. With a distance of 140 feet to cross, this was no easy task and required two weeks for completion.

The original bridge was built in 1859 and was one of the few major river bridges within the BCDR network. The first bridge originally consisted of lattice trusses on timber piles driven into the river bed and this was replaced with a steel girder bridge in 1929. After the closure of the BCDR main line in 1950 the girders were removed, but fortunately the abutments and the centre pier survive intact.

The new bridge that has been reinstated is a replica of the 1920s steel girder bridge, and was fabricated by IES Ltd. of Dunmurry. Costing around £110,000 the funding for the bridge has been grant aided by the International Fund for Ireland and Down District Council. The main girders were craned into position from each abutment on separate days by a 100 ton crane.

The line veers off the original line roughly 260 metres north of the Quoile Bridge towards Inch Abbey, which was not originally a stop on the railway. A new station has been built close to the Inch Abbey Road, out of sight of the Abbey to avoid ruining the tranquillity of the area.

Beyond this we remain committed to completing the extension to Ballydugan, subject to successful land negotiations for the remaining trackbed. And in the future? Well, we have ideas, but you'll just have to wait and see!

In this short video, you can see our very first train on the 4th December 1987, with the arrival of none-other than Santa Claus. As you can see, things were much more basic - we'd no carriages, no steam engine - and no station! All that was to come later...


Steam in the Heart of Down
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