The International Steam Pages

Four Days, Three Provinces,
and the Greater Part of the System,
Irish Republic September 2017

Robert Hall writes about a surprisingly comfortable 'Track Bash'. This is part 1, there is a further link to part 2 at the bottom of this page.

Robert has prepared a map which will be a great help if you are unfamiliar with the subject matter.

As mentioned in my article about 2016 visit to Northern Ireland I'm in the odd position of being in love seen as lifelong, with a nearby country; first-hand experience of which by me, has however been minimal. Namely, the second-biggest island in our archipelago off the northish-westernish corner of the European continent. Explanation attempted in my N.I. piece, of "how come" no. 1 reason being, for an enthusiast of my tastes: that on the whole, the processes which robbed Great Britain's railways of the majority of their appeal and interest for me (the waning / disappearance of steam, and, largely, of pleasing "lesser" lines) set in a few years earlier in Ireland, North and Republic both; than they did on British Railways.

Thus by the time Irish visits became financially possible for me, there was much on rail in other parts of the world more compelling to me and competing with the Emerald Isle, for my limited resources for travel. However, news heard quite recently prompted me to make a brief, belated expedition "not truly affordable, but to be achieved somehow anyway" to cover at least a decent sample of the Republic's remaining rail system.

The spur which had me heading off for the Republic "come what may", came about partly through my not having a finger very closely on the pulse of modern Irish railway doings. For some years not following the relevant scene with the greatest of attention my general impression about the Republic's national rail undertaking, Iarnrod Eireann (henceforth referred to as IE) had been as follows. Its remaining skeleton of operational lines was fairly sparse-and-spare, and running chiefly for passenger purposes, with not a lot of freight still on the scene; but was seen as all likely to continue in service for the foreseeable future. An item on a railway message board, come upon around the beginning of September 2017, disabused me of this comfortable notion. It recounted how IE, its financial position bad, envisaged likely withdrawal in the near future of services over four unremunerative sections, totalling just over 300 km and these not just marginal branch lines (anything truly falling under that description is long gone from Ireland's rail scene, in any case).

In reaction I formed a plan to cover, in four full days (travelling solo), the four threatened lines; and as much else as possible, south of and including the island's median Dublin Galway rail route. That target was in fact fully attained, except for the section of the Dublin Cork main line between Ballybrophy and Mallow. I being very much a lesser-and-branch-lines kind of guy: when in itinerary-planning, "something's got to give" with me, it's usually the main trunk route. Within the possible time-frame, the lines Dublin Northern Ireland border and Dublin Sligo, and the routes north-west from Athlone, had to go untravelled.

With my perceived problem as mentioned in my NI piece, accompanying advancing years tending to drop off to sleep while, in a sitting position, doing stuff much-desired to do including travelling over coveted rail stretches; I decided for this Irish Republic trip to take that risk, seeing measures to counter it, if necessary but it turned out over my four days' quite intensive bash, hardly to be a problem. "Puzzlement" but, my hearty gratitude to Whoever or whatever caused this to be the case.

IE station names and their "suffixes": I'll use said suffixes re stations in Dublin which has several but otherwise, not so. Not from any political bias, one way or the other (stations in bigger towns, bearing suffixes of names of people put to death for their part in the 1916 uprising) just railway-type tradition: if a town has several different stations, different names for them tell you "which is which and what is what" as, in times gone by, Leicester London Road, Central, Belgrave Road, and West Bridge. If a town has only one station as was, save only for Dublin, the case in the Irish Republic by 1966, when this thing was set up suffix-ing it strikes me as pointless and daft. I get the picture that more than a few railway enthusiasts in the Irish Republic loyal citizens of their country feel the same way.

I'm far from learned in the matter of modern railway equipment "power / stock", and ask those whose area of expertise it is, to forgive my cluelessness. On my brief tour, I experienced passenger-carrying rail equipment of basically three kinds varying in age, I learn, from about a quarter of a century to (the majority) much younger. Fast workings running the length of the Dublin Cork main line were handled by modern, very comfortable, loco-hauled coaching stock. A few journeys, on essentially "low down in the heap" lines, were on two-car diesel multiple units. Remaining runs made were by what I will call "mainline-multiples": modern, substantial multiple-unit diesel sets, running in formations of different numbers (all those on which I travelled, were of either three or four cars); the front and rear units with distinctively curved-sloping bonnets.

So I embarked on the overnight coach from Birmingham to Dublin, via a Holyhead sea crossing, in the third week of September 2017. After morning arrival, I purchased at Dublin (Heuston) station my Four Day Rail Trekker all-line unlimited railrover ticket (110 euros), and set off on my four-day (all working weekdays) odyssey accordingly. Itinerary thereof may seem a little odd in shape: that, a function partly of IE's passenger services on much of its system, being sparse in comparison with anything in Great Britain save in the latter's far-flung reaches. On a couple of the lines under immediate threat, sparse in the extreme viz. essentially two workings in each direction daily.

My first goal was one of these threatened and exiguously-served lines: the 90-odd-km route from Ballybrophy junction in the middle of County Laois's "nowhere", through Nenagh to Limerick. Until not long before, I had harboured the mistaken impression that this was the main route between the capital, and the city of comical and often rude five-line verses with its linking them more directly, than the longer way round via Limerick Junction; but, I had found, not so serious travel between the two cities, is by way of the Junction. The route via Nenagh has become a moribund branch, with basically two passenger workings each way per day; the most expeditious of which for me was the 10.05 departure from Ballybrophy, making a neat connection with my 09.00-departing Dublin (Heuston) to Cork loco-hauled express. This train sped us through the fairly humdrum, flattish countryside of the middle of Ireland, with one stop at Port Laois, to reach Ballybrophy in just under an hour. Quick alighting and crossing the footbridge to the other side of the station, and the bay platform in which the Limerick train a two-car DMU was waiting. I was the only passenger to make use of this connection; and in fact, to the best that I could ascertain, the working's only true passenger for the first 32 km to Cloughjordan. Sharing passenger accommodation with me were the guard; and a chap who came and went, and whose role and status were unclear to me.

We motored along sedately on our single line (almost all IE's system save for the Cork Dublin Dundalk [N.I. border] "spine", is single-track) through quietly idyllic countryside, at calculatably about 45 kmph, though it felt slower. A call at the little town of Roscrea yielded no passengers. My feelings were divided: the journey was delectable, but, talk about "Colonel Stephens in a-century-later terms, transplanted to Ireland no wonder IE are eager to get rid of this one". The line was still equipped, even, with solemnly-functioning semaphore signals; except on the equally-threatened Waterford Limerick Junction route, also semaphore, all other signalling observed on IE was colour-light.

Things were saved from total absurdity, by four passengers joining the train at Cloughjordan; and another ten or twelve boarding at the next station, Nenagh. No takers, it seemed, at the following Birdhill station; but there was one at the next and final stop before Limerick, Castleconnell. One cannot quite say that this is a service which absolutely no-one uses; but even such a sentimentalist as myself is inclined to a position of "put the poor thing out of its misery". (Every other IE passenger working on which I travelled including on the other three lines under likely imminent sentence of death seemed to have a respectable or better, complement of passengers.) Final arrival at Limerick, 12.10 five minutes later than the generous schedule's booked time.

There is a delightful thing about the southern half of Ireland, which I had been aware of in theory, but was unprepared for its loveliness at first-hand. The magnificently-mountained south-west corner, quite aside; the land, though predominantly fairly low-lying and gently undulating, is abundantly sprinkled with small high-hill, or modest-mountain, ranges, spectacular when seen from "down below", where one usually finds oneself and in Ireland's way of topographical description, these definitely class as "mountains". After pushing-100 km of initial essential flatness on the Cork main line out of Dublin; as one starts to get near Ballybrophy, the Slieve Bloom range attaining at highest, some 500 metres above sea level comes into view, rising dramatically out of the plain on one's right; and the same range is impressively, and still more closely, in view to the north, as one commences the rail-byway journey towards Limerick. There are plenty more little (and sometimes not-so-little) mountain massifs, one or another rarely out of view, south of the Dublin Galway axis: visually to me anyway, truly a joy.

Out of Limerick at 14.20, on the working (again a two-car DMU, but this one with a goodly load of passengers) for Ennis, Athenry, and Galway. This route is imminently under threat north of Ennis which stretch, Ennis to Athenry, has in previous times lost its passenger services for a spell, but with same being restored something of the order of a decade ago now seen as threatened once more; creating a temptation to think, "make your mind up, IE". 

A 37 minutes' run brought us some 40 km with one intermediate stop at Sixmilebridge (four other one-time intermediate stations on this stretch, are now no more) to Ennis, famous in rail-enthusiast lore. This by reason of Ennis having been the junction-point with the 5ft 3in gauge, of the 3ft gauge West Clare railway: early in its life, a renowned target of ridicule for incompetent and shambolic operation; for its last few years, known for being the then Coras Iompair Eireann, CIE (forerunner of IE)'s hyper-modernised, totally dieselised, thereby a bit boring, narrow-gauge showpiece which didn't save it from abandonment early in 1961. The end of the Irish narrow gauge at the turn of the 1950s / 60s, was dismayingly rapid; for about half a decade there had been three surviving 3ft gauge systems then in a little under two years, it went from three to none, with the West Clare as "last man standing".

On northward, with calls made at Gort, Ardrahan, and Craughwell stations their one-time fellows Crusheen and Tubber are no longer active. South of Gort we crossed from County Clare into County Galway, and thus from Munster province, into Ireland's famously wild-and-woolly western province of Connaught. I spent thence, roughly the succeeding three hours in Connaught; before crossing the river Shannon eastward, thus re-entering "tame" Leinster province where the day's round trip had started. It has always baffled me somewhat, and struck me as wrong, that County Clare out on the Atlantic coast, rugged and inhospitable, and located west of the Shannon and then north of its estuary belongs not to Connaught, but to the south-western province Munster; no doubt however, there is abundant historical stuff about which I know nothing, which explains all this.

Munster, Connaught, Clare, Galway, whatever: I was surprised to find the whole run Limerick Athenry, though largely "wild, green, and empty", and perfectly pleasant; a little dull. The last thing I'd been expecting; and I'm sure "it wasn't it it was me". Maybe a lurking unconscious desire for it to have been seventy years ago, and everything steam: assuming that the CIE of 1947, dependent on British coal, of which at that time we couldn't access enough for ourselves could have mustered the fuel to run a train on the route...

15.57, as against the timetabled 15.53 not overly bad going brought us into the junction of Athenry, and a reversal to set us on our way for Galway. Athenry; in its way, a gem of Ireland's fascinating railway geography: the point at which per ownerships before the then Irish Free State's 1925 equivalent of Great Britain's "Grouping" the long, long tentacle of the Great Southern & Western Railway (which, as per its title, largely served the parts of the island south-west of Dublin) crossed and interchanged with the east-to-west route from Dublin to Galway, of the Midland Great Western Railway. (More GS&W / MGW interaction further north at Claremorris; and a yet longer way north, just short of Sligo.) The GS&W route north from Athenry is now disused, but track out of Athenry is still in situ; it's reckoned conceivable, though not likely, that future revived action might yet take place thereon.

Off to Galway, with enticing vistas of its eponymous bay all the way from Oranmore (penultimate station on the east west main line) to Galway city. About an hour there, mostly consumed in grabbing a quick-ish meal I found Ireland to seem so far, not really to have got the concept of fast food. Off again on the 17.20, four-car mainline-multiples, Galway Dublin (Heuston). 19.54 a pleasant enough run across Ireland's scenically uneventful middle (some lovely cloudscapes, though), rejoining the morning's route at Portarlington. Prompt resorting to Dublin hotel and welcome bed.

Next day, off on the morning's 09.40 departure from Dublin (Connolly) for Rosslare Europort (in Irish, Calafort Roslair) main line of the pre-1925 Dublin & South Eastern Railway. This route threatened with closure "ere long", on its more southerly two-fifths beyond Gorey. A four-car mainline-multiples set, which seemed well-patronised at least up until Wexford near journey's end. This line often receives plaudits as IE's most scenically beauteous, running as it does just to the east of the lovely Wicklow Mountains range while finding it a thoroughly agreeable run, I reckoned myself in this respect, a bit "underwhelmed". The sea-and-land-scapes as the line hugs the coast some of the time, on the cliff tops above from Dublin through Sandymount, "famed in song", and Bray to Greystones, are for sure, impressive; afterwards, the shore is basically followed at sea-level, to Wicklow. Line's looping inland from there through the fringes of the mountains, back to the coast at Arklow, should be beautiful; but I found views largely blocked by the scenery's configuration essentially a "railway-cutting wall" equivalent, of greenery, on the "hill" side all the way.

For me, the best part of the run in the section figured likely, shortly "for the chop" was south of Enniscorthy, close along the bank of the broadening river Slaney, which expands into Wexford Harbour, shore of which the line closely follows into and through Wexford town. A thing of which I had been totally unaware: after Wexford station, the line runs for a fair distance in quay / street tramway fashion (train running dead slow, with many unprotected interfaces with road traffic), with the town's streets on the landward side, and the quays with fishing boats moored at them on seaward ditto. Afterwards, the railway goes back to its usual own reservation, with normal speed resumed; terminating at Rosslare Europort (station a longish walk from the boat arrival / departure centre). This being not at a boat-related time, the Europort / Calafort had for me a bit of a deserted, almost spooky feel in a not unpleasing way; it was a beautiful day, which helped re that.

The rail line which used to link Rosslare with Waterford having closed in 2010; to carry on westward I had to cover the gap concerned, by bus. A little more than half an hour between train arrival and scheduled bus departure: given the slight "last human left on Earth vibes", I felt a little relieved to see Bus Eireann's route no. 40 (Rosslare Waterford Cork Tralee) bus show up as promised, to leave the Europort at 13.00 sharp. Geographically, this part of the world is cut up and complicated by various sizeable rivers and their estuaries. The defunct Rosslare Waterford rail route was able to link the two places via pretty much of a beeline, by virtue of having a bridge over the estuary which lies east of Waterford. There is even today, no road equivalent of this bridge: the bus has to reach Waterford by taking a roundabout, more northerly route back through Wexford, then still circuitously via New Ross; an hour and a half's journey. We reached Waterford at 14.25: exactly two hours before departure-time for the 90-odd km run west-north-west to Limerick Junction.

Waterford's railway station is located on the north bank of the near the sea, and broad river Suir, with the city being essentially on the south side of the river connection by a (lifting) road bridge. The railway is hemmed-in between the river, and cliffs immediately to the north. Seeing for the first time the station and its cliff background, brought at once to mind a photograph by Peter Allen, from his book On The Old Lines picture taken at Waterford station in 1946, looking eastward cliff to left showing an elderly 0-6-0 at the head of a mixed train. Back then, lines ran in five directions out of Waterford now only two, one of those on "Death Row": one functioning passenger platform is able to do duty for both. Additionally there was Irish 5ft 3in gauge, but physically isolated from the rest of Ireland's rail system the wonderfully eccentric almost-12 km city-to-seaside Waterford & Tramore line, with its terminus at Waterford (Manor) station, south of the river; sadly the W & T was abandoned by CIE in 1960.

Click here for Part 2.

Rob Dickinson