SEVENTY years ago this morning the first part of Northern Ireland’s railway network literally came to the end of the line, with the axe falling on a large part of the old Belfast and County Down Railway, marking the end of 100 years of railway transport in East Down.
On this day (15 January) in 1950, railway stations south of Comber fell quiet and an eerie silence descended upon mile after mile of what had once been a key transport corridor.
No longer would the rumble of trains and passenger-filled carriages pass through on their way to Castlewellan or Newcastle, stopping at Ballygowan, Saintfield, Ballynahinch junction, Crossgar, or Dundrum on the way, or perhaps branching off after Downpatrick for Ardglass.Later that year, on April 22, 1950, services from Belfast to Comber – with stops at Bloomfield, Neill’s Hill, Knock, Dundonald and on to Donaghadee also ceased.
Had the line survived to today, it would form a vital transport link between the commuter belt into the Northern Irish capital.
It seems incredible today to think that such a vital transport link could be easily discarded but in 1950 the ministers in the devolved Stormont Government took the view that railways were as obsolete as the stagecoach.
In a way, they were right that the lines were Edwardian relics – and the BCDR in particular still operated obsolete Victorian carriages – but investment since then in new technologies in track, signalling and rolling stock over those years have showed what we could have had throughout Northern Ireland.
But even then, in 1948 an express train from Comber to Belfast could get you into the old Queen’s Quay station near the Odyssey Arena in 15 minutes – despite the investment in the Glider and other public transport initiatives nothing has come close to replicating that speed and efficiency.
Up to the 1940s, the main railway network in Northern Ireland was operated by three major railway companies, the London Midland and Scottish Railway’s ‘Northern Counties’ lines, which operated out of York Road Station to Larne and Londonderry; the Great Northern Railway of Ireland, which operated out of Great Victoria Street Station to places like Dungannon, Armagh, as well as Dublin; and the Belfast and County Down Railway, based at Queen’s Quay Station.
In 1948, the Stormont government decided to nationalise the network and amalgamate the LMS and BCDR with the bus operator, the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board, to form the Ulster Transport Authority, a predecessor to Translink.
A tribunal was set up to consider how this could be best achieved and provide an integrated transport system.
Rail chiefs, who had been hoping for investment after the railways had proved so crucial to the war effort a few years earlier and that the buses would be barred from competing with the trains and instead provide a feeder service to stations, were devastated at the outcome.
The recommendation, accepted by Stormont, was that the entire Belfast and County Down Railway main line from Belfast to Newcastle, including the branches to Donaghadee, Ballynahinch and Ardglass, should be closed.
The only route to be saved was the Belfast to Bangor connection, which continues operating successfully to this day.
The attitude of Stormont was that it would be cheaper to move everything to the roads than to invest in railways that had been run down during the Second World War – people would use the buses instead. They developed huge road building schemes – most were never completed – but closed the railways first before these were even started. It seems incredible today.
Station Master James Taylor (left), Walter Paton, engine rosterer, fireman James Hill, driver Barney Malone on the last train to depart Downpatrick station to Ardglass in January 1950
The most puzzling element of the decision was the axing of the Belfast to Newtownards line, which served the east of the city – Dundonald, Knock and Comber areas in which the suburbs were developing and likely to provide increased commuter traffic had they been spared.
Indeed, there were more than enough new diesel trains ordered to operate both the Bangor and Newtownards lines – and evidence suggests that the Transport Tribunal expected Stormont to spare the Comber line as a compromise option and as late as 1953 before the tracks were lifted they were calling on the minister responsible to reverse the decision and trial these new diesel trains on this section of track – a call that fell on deaf ears.
The 1950 closures were the first steps in a plan which was to see the reduction of Northern Ireland’s railway network from 754 miles to 297 miles, a decrease of 61 per cent.
A decade later, the Great Northern Railway was divided between the UTA and its counterpart in the Republic, CIE, and further closures to lines to Armagh, Dungannon, Omagh and Strabane occurred.
These closures all occurred before the infamous Beeching Report into British Railways – the remit of which did not extend to Northern Ireland as this was a devolved matter.
Willie Watterson and James Magill, who were porters and ticket clerks at Newcastle and Tullymurry stations, recalled memories of the last train in an interview recorded for the BBC documentary ‘Raising Steam’ in 2007.
“The last train was a Sunday night. It was a cold winter night, 15th January 1950. There was twelve coaches, and two engines and two Guards. She was packed. Packed to the doors. So I lit all the lamps, and put detonators on the line to give her a send-off.
James added: “I think every station did the same thing, so when the train came in there was a salute of bangs. I felt terrible about it, terribly, terribly sad. I still felt it couldn’t happen.
“Still felt they’ll come back, they’ll run again. I couldn’t believe there’d be no more railways, after working on them so hard.”
Adam Hamilton, who was a fireman (the person who stoked the fire on the steam locomotives), also explained: “It broke my heart, because the railways were in my blood. I still hear the sound of the steam still running on a clear night puffing away”.
Today, the Downpatrick & County Down Railway keeps the memory alive through its reconstruction of two miles of the former main line as well as restored carriages rescued from their fate as hen houses.
As part of its commemorations of the BCDR‘s demise, it is keen to make contact with anyone who had any connection with the network, including former employees or their families, or people in possession of railway memorabilia such as photographs, tickets, timetables or even carriages.
One thing we would love for the museum is a BCDR uniform or tunic – so far we have been unable to track one down. Perhaps you have something in your loft?
The Downpatrick and County Down Railway can be contacted via email at email@example.com or message at www.facebook.com/downrail
And what of the future of the line? In November 2008 the section of the BCDR’s former main line from Holywood Arches to Comber was opened as the Comber Greenway, whilst other sections have been used for roads as well as the section around Downpatrick being used by the DCDR.
In the early 1990s Northern Ireland Railways prepared a feasibility study into reopening the line to Newtownards, but this was not taken further by the Direct Rule administration.
In May 2013, the Department for Regional Development published its Railway Investment Prioritisation Strategy, which promised feasibility studies into the reopening of closed railway routes to Armagh, Dungannon and Castledawson by 2030, but not including the Comber/Newtownards route.
However maybe, seventy years after the first railway closure in Northern Ireland, the new Minister for Infrastructure in the restored Stormont Government might see the first of those historic mistakes rectified?
Track lifting at Tullymurry station in 1953
Catch the steam train at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway on this year’s Late Spring Bank Holiday. It’s perfect chance for another trip to Inch Abbey, taking the time to sample the delights of a real steam train and rail travel at its most traditional.
Monday 27th May
Departures from 1pm-4pm
The train is being hauled by a ‘Black Beauty’ of the steaming kind – Orenstein & Koppel steam locomotive No. 1, a German-built locomotive that hauled wagons filled with sugar beet during her working life in factories for the Irish Sugar Company. The steam loco will be hauling two beautifully restored carriages from our heritage collection.
Happy passengers enjoying the train trip
If you’re looking for something to do in the gloriously sunny exam weather, you can catch the steam train out to the 12th Century Cistercian monastery at Inch Abbey, travelling through the drumlin countryside of County Down – perhaps taking a picnic out with you to enjoy some chill time on the banks of the River Quoile?
Hot and cold drinks and snacks will also be served all day on board the buffet train at Inch Abbey station; if you are travelling into the town from Inch Abbey the return journey can be made on any of the services.
The former Bundoran Jct Signal Cabin
A trip to the signal cabin (fully wheelchair accessible) and the Carriage Gallery visitor centre brings the golden age of railways vividly to life, and looks at the impact that the railways had upon the lives of those who worked and travelled on them. The Carriage Gallery is your chance to encounter some of the finest restored carriages in Ireland, and see first-hand the stark contrast between them and the ruined shells that they came to us as. You can also see our latest arrival, an original Travelling Post Office carriage from An Post, which used to race between Dublin and Cork sorting mail on the move.
For the younger train fans, children can enjoy their own ‘Kids’ Station’ in the Gallery, and dress up as a train driver or guard and climb on board the cab of a locomotive or carriage for their photograph to be taken, or can get to drive Thomas the Tank Engine on a model railway – ‘big kids’ might even get a go too.
Be sure to talk to the driver and fireman and see the footplate
You should also be sure to go up to the front of the train at either of our stations where you can get a good look at the footplate of the steam locomotive and talk to the driver and fireman, they will show you how a steam locomotive works. You might even get a lump of coal as a souvenir. Be sure to ask them lots of difficult questions!
For those who are a little more adventurous, and perhaps live out a childhood dream, you can add on a ‘Footplate Pass’ for just £20. Not only will you get to climb aboard and see the footplate of a genuine steam loco, but you’ll get a return trip to Inch Abbey in the delightful company of the driver and fireman. A reasonable level of fitness is required for this, and terms and conditions apply.
Trains depart from 1pm to 4pm, with all-day tickets costing:
- Adults: £7.50
- Children aged 4 and over: £5.50
- Children aged under 4: FREE!
- Families (2 adults + up to three kids): £22
- Concessions (Senior Citizens, students, unemployed etc.): £6.50
Tickets can be purchased at our online ticket office, here, or you can buy tickets when you arrive at our station in Downpatrick.
Find out more about what you can do on your visit here.
Don’t forget that DCDR members travel totally free of charge – check out how to become a member here. If you’re a member you can also consider being a volunteer, and become part of the team who runs Ireland’s only full size heritage railway. Find out more about volunteering.
Our steam train pulls into the station in Downpatrick
From families to railway buffs, from tots to grandparents, if you’re stuck for something to do on the May Day Bank Holiday Monday, then bring yourself to Downpatrick for an afternoon of adventure on Ireland’s only full size heritage railway.
Railway chairman Robert Gardiner says the May Day bank holiday is the perfect chance to take another trip to Inch Abbey or to see the delights of a real steam train for anyone who did not get the chance at Easter.
“And as well as fun for the children, mums and dads also get the chance to experience rail travel at its most traditional, as passengers will be able to taste the elegance of by-gone railway travel on fifty to one hundred year old carriages through the picturesque County Down countryside along nearly two miles of restored track.
“Teas, coffees, buns and snacks, at highly competitive rates, will be served all day onboard our buffet train at Inch Abbey station; if you are travelling into the town from Inch Abbey the return journey can be made on any of the services.”
He adds, “And if the weather holds out, bring a picnic to take out to Inch Abbey to enjoy on the shores of the beautiful River Quoile. And as a special treat this year, we’re using our vintage carriage rake with three beautifully restored carriages, all of them at least 100 years old. It’s a real trip back to Edwardian times!”
Mr. Gardiner also says, “A trip to the ‘Carriage Gallery’ visitor centre brings the golden age of the railway vividly to life and looks at the impact that the railways had on people’s lives, through artefacts from the smallest such as a ticket in the upstairs exhibition, or the largest such as lovingly restored railway carriages in the Carriage Gallery and the stark contrast of the wrecks these vehicles once were when rescued.”
Children can enjoy their own “Kids’ Station” in the Gallery, and dress up as a train driver or guard, or can get to drive Thomas the Tank Engine on a model railway – or will they let the ‘big kids’ get a go too?”
For those a little more adventurous, and perhaps live out a childhood dream, you can buy a Footplate Pass for just £20 and get to travel up in the locomotive cab with the driver. You can read more about this here.
Tickets cost £7.50 for adults, £5.50 for children 4 and over, concession fares are £6.50. Children aged below four years old go free! A family ticket is £22 for two adults and up to three kids. You can buy your tickets when you arrive at our station, or you can buy them online now!
Free Parking is available at both Inch Abbey and Downpatrick Stations.
Mr Gardiner adds, “Dogs are very welcome on our trains, provided they are kept under control.”
Last admissions are at 3:45pm. Trains depart from 1pm-4pm, the station is open until 5pm. Check out our timetable & fares details here.
There’ll be eggs-travagant fun at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway with eggs galore on this year’s Easter Eggspress, running over the Easter weekend.
The bunnies are already hopping the rails at the local heritage railway, and the Easter Eggspress is a unique and special treat for kids and a great way to say ‘Happy Easter!’ for all the family.
The train will be used for excursions from the town centre from 1.30pm to 4.30pm on Saturday 20th, Easter Sunday 21st & Easter Monday 22nd April.
Railway Chairman Robert Gardiner, says that young passengers receive a treat from a special guest, “The Easter Bunny has bounced into the station for this weekend who’ll be hopping with joy to give them their Easter Eggs.”
And this year, the Easter Bunny wants to play a game and is creating an Egg Trail Hunt for wannabe eggsperts, as Mr Gardiner explains. “The Easter Bunny has brought down some of her friends, small teddies and bunnies, but they’re very shy and it’s the job of visitors to track them down. Families will receive a guide to their hunt with their tickets to help ‘eggsplore’ the railway and gather up the info on the card. Each bunny has a large letter which together make up a two word message.”
He continues, “They then have to reveal this secret phrase to the Easter Bunny who will reward them of an Easter Egg of their choice.”
Steam locomotive O&K No. 1 with the vintage carriages that you can experience at Easter.
And as well as fun for the children, mums and dads also get the chance to experience rail travel at its most traditional, as passengers will be able to taste the elegance of by-gone railway travel on 100+ year old carriages hauled by one of our steam locomotives through the picturesque County Down countryside along nearly two miles of restored track.
Teas, coffees, soft drinks and snacks will be served all day on board a vintage buffet carriage parked at Inch Abbey station.
Mr. Gardiner also commented, “A trip to the station museum and the Carriage Gallery visitor centre brings the golden age of the railway vividly to life and looks at the impact that the railways had on people’s lives, through artefacts from the smallest, such as a ticket in the upstairs exhibition, or the largest, such as lovingly restored railway carriages in the Carriage Gallery and the stark contrast of the wrecks these vehicles once were when rescued.”
“For the younger train fans, children can enjoy their own Kids’ Station in the Gallery, and dress up as a train driver or guard for a family selfie using some of the Victorian props and costumes provided in the dressing up area, in a carriage or beside the 1875 steam engine.
“On the station they can get to drive Thomas the Tank Engine on a model railway – or will they let the big kids get a go too?”
“For those a little more adventurous, and perhaps to fulfil a childhood dream, you can buy a Footplate Pass for just £20 and get to travel up in the locomotive cab with the driver.” A reasonable level of fitness is required to purchase these passes.
Tickets cost £8.50 for all ages (£7.50 for concessions), and can be booked in advance via the website.
St Patrick’s Day is the first chance you have in 2019 to travel in style on one of our heritage trains – and this year we are rolling out a real treat and using our beautiful vintage carriages for you to enjoy.
Advance ticketing is available for these events – visit our secure online ticket office now to buy your tickets!
The town is hosting the usual St Patrick’s Day parade, which starts around 1pm in the town centre – note the earlier start this year! There’s a load of activities going on around the town as well, making it a great day out for everyone. We’ll be running steam and diesel trains throughout the afternoon, and our museum, carriage gallery and other attractions will be open as usual.
We will be running trains from Inch Abbey to Downpatrick from around 11:30am, with the last return train departing from Downpatrick at 4pm. Inch Abbey can be a very useful park & ride facility to get you into the town without having to struggle with the road closures.
You can buy your tickets in advance to avoid the queues, and travel on any train you like. You can also buy your tickets when you arrive at our Inch Abbey and Downpatrick stations.
Our standard fares will apply to both these days:
Children 4+: £5.50
Children under 4: Free
Family (2 adults + up to 3 kids): £22
As usual, you can take more than one train trip if you wish, and you are welcome to spend as long as you want exploring the railway, station and museum.
For more information:
How to find our station in Downpatrick