The International Steam Pages

Six Counties, plus a bit, or, Quitting Time for Line Bashing?

Some time back, Robert Hall put together a series of tales about Island Railways. Necessarily Ireland was far too large to qualify and its major railways 'too main line' but Robert has requested this post script to the series which describes a contemporary trip to Northern Ireland... There is an associated map available which can be accessed separately, click the map to return to this page.

For the past sixty years or so – thus, for me, since childhood – I have had something of a passion for Ireland, and things and peoples Irish (“all shapes and makes”). This ascribable to kind parents buying monthly for me the Railway Magazine from the time of my learning to read – with my learning therefrom, the marvels of Ireland’s railways, “South and North” as at the mid-1950s (as it turned out, the very last moment at which they were highly marvellous); and to things heard from an uncle – not a railway enthusiast (though he had encountered the Schull & Skibbereen 3ft. gauge line in 1938, and found it delightful), but a visitor a number of times to Ireland, who as a result fell in love with the place, and delighted in talking of it to anyone who would listen.

Nonetheless, until very recently my first-hand acquaintance with the Emerald Isle had been all but nil. Not from lack of desire on my part, but owing to always-prevalent shortage of funds; and to the sad fact that by the time I might have been able to afford to visit Ireland (never on my childhood’s family holiday agenda), Ireland’s railways in themselves had ceased for me to be a very compelling goal, whether for steam or for interestingly obscure lines. Was very unlucky on a literal day-trip to the Belfast area late in 1969, with objective of seeing the spoil trains (2-6-4Ts fore-and-aft) running between Magheramorne and the motorway-construction stretch alongside Belfast Lough. An evil fate decreed that on that day, some wagons got derailed at the Magheramorne extraction site, in such a way as to paralyse the whole operation – no spoil trains were running. Most of our limited daylight hours were spent on the station at Greenisland on the “muck trains’ ” route a few miles north-east of Belfast, hoping against hope that things would get sorted out and the trains would start to run; but they didn’t. (The kindly station staff kept us posted about the unfortunately never-improving situation.) We returned miserably to the city, travelled over the Belfast Queen’s Quay Station – Bangor line in the very last of the light, and got on the boat back to England. Decades later, a few days’ holiday was spent around Dublin, with then girlfriend: not a specifically railway venture, but some train travel done on the “coastwise” routes north and south of Dublin.

The abovementioned had been all that I’d known first-hand of Ireland, until a short time ago as I write this. Unlooked-for good fortune allowed for a holiday in the north of Ireland (mostly in the entity of Northern Ireland, with some time spent in the Republic) – a fortnight in late April and the first couple of days of May, 2016. This visit in the company of my friend B. – grices with whom in various parts, told of in other “Tales” of mine. Conducted by car (his car, him driving – that being a skill which I have never acquired): largely doing fairly-normal tourist stuff and trying to cover pretty well all of the Province, plus indulging respective non-rail interests – but with time taken, to travel (in my case anyway) over all Northern Ireland’s remaining rail passenger routes: this, sadly, not a greatly taxing or time-consuming mission.

The bulk of remaining rail routes (all of course on the Irish “standard” 5ft. 3in. gauge) in Northern Ireland, now run by “Translink”, were quite easily travelled over in a day: those north of Belfast, anyway. Translink has an arrangement by which on Sundays, an unlimited “railrover” ticket over all their lines, is issued for only £9 (the same is available for other days of the week, but costs about twice as much). The picture is generally got that in the old days of Protestantism particularly of the Presbyterian kind, holding the reins in Northern Ireland; this tended toward the imposition there of sabbatarian banning of Sunday fun of any description, to an almost crazy extent -- one envisages NI’s lawgivers of the past, spinning in their graves at the thought of “cheap gricing on Sundays”. To the best of my knowledge, these earnest folk never managed the total prohibition of any Sunday wheel-turning-on-a-rail anywhere in the Province (though there is a mention in the Ulster Transport Museum, of a 19th-century Presbyterian minister declaiming to the effect of “every train whistle on a Sunday being answered with a shout in hell”) – but seemingly, they were able to forbid most other things, for one day out of seven. For better or worse, all that is done away with now.

Godless Sabbath-breakers myself and B. (who is mostly a strictly steam man, not a line-basher for its own sake – I was pleased and surprised at his joining me “off his own bat” for the rail-travelling day) started our grice on Sunday 1st May, on the 0942 (line’s first working of the day) Belfast Central Station – Bangor. There’s perhaps a little bit of a remaining sabbatarian sting in the tail, in that passenger services in Northern Ireland start running decidedly late on Sunday mornings. You can do the system north of Belfast, in a Sunday; but, good luck with including the ex-Great Northern Railway of Ireland main line Belfast – border – Dundalk, in a Sunday as well. Happily, I had a remedy (told of later) for that issue.

All the day’s travelling north of Belfast, was by scheduled-workings 30** and 40** series, three-car DMUs. Based essentially on Belfast’s relatively new Central station: gone is the situation as at my only previous visit to Belfast, of three separate termini -- one for each of the pre-nationalisation railway companies serving the city. 

We first did the relatively short Bangor, and Larne, routes. Bangor line is double-track throughout; Larne one, double if I have things rightly, as far as Downshire – thence to Larne Harbour, single with a couple of passing loops. Interesting moments on the Larne run, looking at Whitehead, at the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland’s premises there (rolling stock of lesser importance out in the open; more-treasured stuff in a capacious shed, invisible to passers-by); and at Magheramorne, at the presumed site on the “shore” side of the line from which not quite fifty years ago, the spoil was removed to load on to the “muck trains” – which I tried and failed, at that time, to see; and which B. was never in a position to go to see.

We tackled last on the Sunday, the Belfast – Londonderry route and its short branch to Portrush. The “Derry” main line is single from a point near the one-time Ballyclare Junction not very far out of Belfast, to its north-western terminus – a number of passing loops along the way. General feel is got about this route, of its being a little run-down; to the best that I (no genius about such things) can ascertain, covering roughly 100 miles: trains between Belfast and Londonderry require a fraction over two hours to traverse the route -- not horribly slow, but not lighting-fast either. A feeling particularly got, that -- delightful in itself though most of the entire journey is -- the train seems to take an eternity to run the 20-odd miles between Cullybackey and Ballymoney. And the section of the main line between Coleraine and Londonderry is, for sure, impressively scenic, much of it along the water’s edge: but nine median miles or so of it, are across the base of a promontory and thus removed from the water – the run overall, less of a scenic wonder than its most-eager “boosters” make it out to be.

I managed to cover NI’s only other passenger route, Belfast to the border and thence to Dundalk; by reason of our holiday being basically car-borne, and B. not being a line-basher “to trade”. It was found most economical to take the car by ferry between Liverpool and Dublin, out-and-home, and drive between Dublin and Northern Ireland: thus figured that in one direction, I could travel by rail between the two capitals, and B. could drive. It worked out that on the heading-for-home day, I took the joint Translink / Iarnrod Eireann “Enterprise” express at 0800, Belfast Central – Dublin Connolly; rendezvousing agreed at appropriate point near Dublin. This was duly done: interesting experience, “in so far as...”.

Advancing years – I’ll shortly turn 68 – have on the whole been kind to me: but a recently-surfaced function of same, is an increasing tendency to drop off to sleep – even in the midst of circumstances which I wish to experience. For this reason, I have essentially given up going to the cinema. And this insidious thing is also beginning to bedevil me on the gricing scene. During our “Sunday bash”, I found myself annoyingly nodding off on various sections which I wished to experience. Luckily, our Sunday doings were virtually all out-and-return, thus with a “second chance”: I found myself making sure of the second-chance bit, by forsaking my seat and standing up in the vestibule between the coach doors, looking out through the door windows.

The “Enterprise” was a “one-trip, no second deal” situation. Having risen early and left the hotel (way out north-west of Belfast) breakfastless, to catch an early bus into the city: settled into comfortable seat on the train, on preferred left-hand side, in direction of travel. All well from Belfast to Portadown, with coffee and sandwich supplied by lady with trolley progressing through train – pleasanter rural scenes than expected, passed through (some of this section, likely because of permanent-way slacks, was taken at a crawl). Shortly after the Portadown stop, I nodded off – missing possible sightings of abandoned lines at former junctions Scarva and Goraghwood; but fortunately, woke up a little before the magnificent Craigmore viaduct in the environs of Newry, with the chance to value that structure. Stayed awake and alert from there, through the beautiful hill country until crossing of the border and arrival at, and departure from, Dundalk. Along that run, I noticed the impressive architecture of the lineside Catholic church some way north of the border – which I had seen in photographs – known popularly as “Father Murphy’s Chapel”. (Had had in my head that this edifice was on the west side of the line: my observation, though, was “east side”.) I like – as distinct from approving of the sentiments involved – the tale from steam days, of the Great Northern loco driver, an Ulster Protestant of the extreme kind: who after a long battle to maintain sufficient steam pressure on the tough northward climb on this cross-border stretch of the GN main line, reputedly said, on “FM’sC” coming into view: “I don’t like you, I don’t believe in you, but this time I’m glad to see you.”

From shortly after Dundalk, I was “spark out” right until a point very well toward Dublin -- the Howth peninsula and its headland could be viewed shortly ahead. I’d been completely oblivious of Drogheda and its viaduct over the River Boyne. Oh, well – fond though I am of the Republic, the tour had been basically focused on the North: and “stuff happens”.

I feel that perhaps signs are showing that it’s time for me to accept reality, and abandon real-life line-bashing. Going to considerable pains to travel over a sought-after line, and then falling asleep while travelling on it, and thus not experiencing it: as the sci-fi aliens say, “does not compute”. Have long heard about incidences of gricers doing comparable “bust-a-gut-for-it-and-then-throw-it-away” exercises; but my preference is to be seen from the point of view of normal folk, as mad -- but only to a halfway-reasonable point !

“Back-tracking re time” -- other things were happened on, as well as surviving passenger routes. Our car-ferry crossing to Ireland landed us in Dublin on the holiday’s first day, at a very early hour of the morning. Was decided – a combination of whim, and practical circumstances – to head north by an indirect and eccentric route, which became progressively more so. We ended up driving north-westward and spending some time in Trim (no trace seen of the very-long-abandoned branch line serving that town; which line, terminating at Athboy, was the famed “everywhere-basher” T.R. Perkins’s very last target in the entire British Isles). Went on thence, to Navan. Having been for a fair number of years, out of touch with the details of rail matters in the Republic: had been under the impression that the roughly forty branch-line miles from Drogheda to Navan and Kingscourt (passenger services withdrawn “aeons ago”, route long retained to carry traffic from the gypsum mine near Kingscourt), had been for some dozen-plus years -- since end of rail gypsum traffic -- out of use but with track still in place. Arrival at the level crossing adjacent to Navan station yielded the surprising sight of several lines of track still in good repair, and seemingly functioning semaphore signals. Conversation with friendly staff on the spot, and subsequent research, revealed that this part of the line is still running, between Drogheda and the Tara zinc-ore mine just beyond Navan (an undertaking hitherto unknown to me) – averaging some three workings each way per day. Time did not permit waiting for the next train: nonetheless, a joyous discovery on an island where the present-day rail scene gives a picture predominantly, of just-holding-of-own at best.

The rail track onward to Kingscourt, which we closely followed by road, was indeed still in situ (gypsum traffic ended, I’ve subsequently learned, in 2001) but dreadfully overgrown – in such a state as to be totally impassable by any rail vehicle. We had to ponder on why this was so: in the condition to which the track has sunk, any unlikely-bordering-on-miraculous resumption of services would require great effort and expense – why not just dismantle the line, end-of-story? Enquiries have revealed that there is nowadays a strong convention – whether legislated, or just “the done thing” – in the Irish Republic, that when all traffic ceases on a line, at least ten years must pass before said line can be formally closed or lifted. In this case, fifteen years gone by at the time of writing – well, various possible scenarios.

On the subject of tracklifting: dismantled lines are indeed found in great profusion in and near Northern Ireland: long notoriously the most railway-unfriendly polity in the British Isles – since times way back when Dr. Richard Beeching was almost “nobbut a lad”, and long before he had anything to do with rail-related matters. Shortly after the formation (roughly contemporary with railway nationalisation in Great Britain) of the Ulster Transport Authority, in charge of all public transport solely within the Six Counties: that road-minded body went in 1950, on a ferocious rampage of closures – some just to passengers, many involving total abandonment – against the lesser and more rural rail lines in its new fiefdom. 

Railways in the south and west of the Province lasted for a while longer, being mostly in the possession of the independent Great Northern Railway of Ireland – lying on both sides of the NI / Irish Republic border, and being cut by said border at multiple points. “Upsides and downsides”: it would seem fair to say that the partitioning of Ireland in 1921 was probably not the optimum solution to the particular conundrum which it tried to address – but it had the benefit for gricers of prolonging in the north of Ireland, the colourful joys of the pre-Grouping era for -- variously -- a quarter-century, and 35-odd years, beyond their disappearing from other parts of these islands. However, from the early 1950s the desperately broke Great Northern was being kept afloat by subsidies from the governments both sides of the border: as at 1957, that of NI declined (with political / strategic considerations possibly in the mix) to shell out same, any longer. This effectively meant the end from October ’57, of the Great Northern’s secondary routes running in four directions from the wonderful junction town, just on the Republic’s side of the border, of Clones (pronounced, one learns, “Cloh-ness” – not monosyllabically as in “multiple Dolly the sheep’s”). Their remnants in the Republic continued in use for freight only, for another couple of years; but essentially, 30 / 9 / 57 was “finis”. What was left of the Great Northern was quite soon thereafter carved up between the UTA and the Republic’s railways: in 1965 the UTA abandoned the ex-GN Portadown – Omagh – Londonderry and Goraghwood – Newry – Warrenpoint lines; since when Northern Ireland’s remaining rump of a railway system has all stayed in place, though having become for recent decades, passenger-only.

With these closures having happened so long since – even the most recent of them, the majority of a lifetime ago – there are unsurprisingly, not very many visible traces left of the railways which once were in Northern Ireland, but are no longer. B., usually a great optimist as regards remaining vestiges of abandoned lines, came over the days of car travel around the now railway-less southerly-westerly areas of the Province, to reluctant agreement on this matter. Remnants do exist here and there, but as the exception rather than the rule. We spent two nights at a B & B near Tassagh, south of Armagh: a magnificent “exception” hereabouts is the 11-arch Tassagh Viaduct of the Great Northern’s Armagh – Keady line, abandoned in the 1957 slaughter: this fine structure is now officially “listed” for non-demolition. The viaduct was built over the period 1904 – 08: the GNR(I)’s branch route from Armagh to Keady and, formerly, further south, opened very late in the railway era (1909 – 10) – it was essentially a “blocking” line, which came into being to counter ambitions on the part of Ireland’s Midland Great Western Railway to extend northward into Great Northern territory.

Another plainly-surviving “artefact” (a favourite word of B.’s in this context – which I have difficulty taking seriously, with its always reminding me of the late-1960s radio comedy programme “Round the Horne” and its folklorist character Rambling Sid Rumpo) seen by us for certain: is – in the same area – the massive embankment east of Armagh (on the one-time Great Northern branch between that city and Goraghwood), which was the site of Ireland’s worst-ever railway accident, on June 12th 1889. As so often, a tragedy of sequential errors and cock-ups, involving an ill-advised attempt to split a heavy special train in order to deal with a steep gradient: the detached rear portion running away downhill, without effective continuous braking to stop it. The embankment on which the runaway coaches collided with the following normal-service train, is still resplendently there; although the section of line which it carried, was abandoned as long ago as 1933.

At my behest, we drove – within NI throughout, though for the earlier parts, “only just” – westward from the Armagh area toward Enniskillen, along the one-time mostly-roadside 37 - mile route, Tynan to Maguiresbridge, of the 3ft. gauge Clogher Valley Railway, abandoned 1941 but dear to my heart since I first read of it, as in my estimation the British Isles’ total perfect quintessence of the narrow-gauge roadside steam tramway. On this one-time line’s stretches between Tynan and Aughnacloy, B. was eager and highly positive to see evidence on the west side of the road, of the railway’s former course: I – as pessimistic on these matters, as he is optimistic – ventured the opinion that, with the line (lightly-engineered anyway) having been abandoned and lifted three-quarters of a century ago, he was probably engaging in pareidolia (the learned scholars’ word for “seeing what you want to see”). At all events, one-time station buildings of the CVR are still in place at Augher, Fivemiletown, and Brookeborough: turned to different purposes in each case, none of those, to that of direct railway-preservation.

Fivemiletown was famous as the place where the CVR ran tramway-fashion at length through the middle of the town’s main street, to and from the (on its separate terrain) station at the lower end of the town. We had with us, E.M. Patterson’s definitive book on the CVR: B. took much pleasure in locating as closely as possible, the actual point in the main street at which a photograph in the book, circa 1937, of a CVR train running along same, was taken; and replicating said photograph, without the railway and the train. He has a passion for recreating and reliving “the exact spot”, the fascination of which eludes me; but life would be dreary if we were all turned on and off by exactly the same things.

We took a brief run out of Northern Ireland and into the Republic, to the seaside resort of Bundoran – following a wish of mine to see, if only briefly, Ireland’s western Atlantic coast; and in memory of the Great Northern’s one-time branch line to Bundoran, which hopped across the border at several points, and was slain in the holocaust of 1957: we drove for quite some distance alongside its one-time course, but no traces of same could be perceived. When all’s said and done: basically sixty years ago – not surprising. We called briefly at Ballyshannon, a few miles east of Bundoran – which town was served by the GNR(I) branch, and was also the terminus of a line of the 3ft. gauge County Donegal system. As ever: gone for half-a-century-plus... we concentrated heavily on the Six Counties, and despite temptation, essentially didn’t mess with County Donegal except briefly here at its southernmost point.

Later in the bash we did, at my request, call in at Strabane – just inside N I, in County Tyrone – in memory of its one-time rail magnificence as the junction of the GN broad gauge, and Co. Donegal 3ft. gauge, systems. Like a fair number of communities in the north of Ireland – Strabane still has a “Railway Street” (at some, it’s “Station Road”): but, as usual, nothing whatever recognisably railway-related, found in said thoroughfare. I recall a rather poignant comment made at the height of Northern Ireland’s late-twentieth-century “Troubles”, in which Strabane was badly hit – to the effect that “before this stuff came about, nobody in Great Britain except railway enthusiasts, had ever heard of Strabane”.

We “did” – and were genuinely impressed by – a good number of Northern Ireland’s conventional tourist features. Opted out of the “Titanic” stuff with which Belfast – building-place of the ship concerned -- seems terminally obsessed. Very sad story, etc. -- but (poorly placed though railway enthusiasts are, to decry obsession-victims): there are some things on which more than the average number of people do tend to get fixated, and drone on about endlessly and without mercy to those around them: examples, Jack The Ripper, and the Titanic. I’ve endured garrulous work colleagues with strong interests in both. And such people are usually not open to reciprocal-treaty suggestions along the lines of “you bend my uninterested ear about your topic for x minutes, after which I get the same amount of time doing me-to-you, with mine”. One of those probably irremediable things -- but for B. and myself, the T-vessel falls into the “don’t ask, don’t tell” bracket.

We visited, and enjoyed, the Giants’ Causeway. Took no notice of the 3ft. gauge tourist railway, recently reinstated on a part of the course of the electric tramway of that gauge which ran until 1949 between Portrush, Bushmills, and the Causeway. It was not running on the day of our visit; in any case, B. is indifferent to such stuff – and I feel on principle (subject to a few exceptions) that reinstatement for tourists and gricers decades after, of abandoned railways, is “bogus, plastic, and not right”.

(High on my list of “dream railwaying expeditions, with the benefit of a time machine”, has long been a fortnight in the north of Ireland in the summer of 1949. The last summer when the Ulster Transport Authority’s lesser lines were running in full: its next year’s massacre of same, was just around the corner. The Great Northern Railway of Ireland and other, smaller cross-border rail concerns were still independent and going strong – including a healthy amount of County Donegal’s extensive 3ft. gauge. The Giants’ Causeway electric tramway carried on until the end of September 1949, then closed down for good. The Republic’s (nationalised) rail system was in a shaky condition in various ways, but still virtually all-steam, and ‘49 was before its era of massive closures. This would have been a blessed “summer’s lease”, indeed...) 

We feel moved to echo the sentiment expressed by the great majority of those who visit Northern Ireland -- that the inhabitants, of whatever religious and / or political persuasion, come across in the main as very friendly and likeable folk. “Language difficulties” quite often occurred vis-a-vis B. and myself, basically BBC-English speakers; and the assorted Northern Irish accents. Re this, good humour was preserved throughout, but there was at times a degree of puzzlement and, in extreme cases, wishes for an interpreter to magically materialise. Northern Ireland is emphatically not a beer-connoisseur’s heaven: the varieties of lager and bitter there tend to be – for those for whom this is an important thing – restricted and dull. B., a discriminating lager-buff, had in this respect a fairly bad fortnight; and was eager to enquire in hope, about what beer varieties were available. In our stay early in the bash at a hotel outside Belfast, he got himself and the bar staff tied thoroughly in linguistic knots, regarding two different poor and insipid types of beer which they had on offer. Their names were “Hop House”, and “Harp Ice” – which in Belfastese, sound virtually identical. A fair bit of confusion ensued...

At all events, a grand trip: would have been even better seventy-odd years ago; but on this scene -- what, anywhere, wouldn’t?

Rob Dickinson