History of rail transport in Ireland

From Academic Kids

This article is part of the history of rail transport by country series

The history of rail transport in Ireland began only a decade later than that of Great Britain. 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. Today Ireland's railways are run by Iarnród Éireann in the Republic and Northern Ireland Railways. The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland based in Whitehead, County Antrim is the main preservation group, with the Irish Traction Group preserving diesel locomotives. See rail transport in Ireland for the current situation.


Ireland in the early 19th century

The island of Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, with consequent direct rule from Westminster as a result of the Act of Union 1800.

Transport before railways

Transport on a country-wide scale began in 1710 when the General Post Office started to operate mail coaches along the main routes between towns: private operators added to the routes, and an established road system was set up. In 1715 the then Irish Parliament took steps to encourage inland navigation, but it was not until 1779 that the first 12-mile section of the Grand Canal was opened: with a second canal, and river navigation (particularly the River Shannon), it meant that freight could now be transported more easily. In 1815 the horse-car services of Charles Bianconi were established in the south of Ireland and were only the first of many such passenger-carrying operations.

Ireland's first railway

The first railway to be built in Ireland was the Dublin and Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) Railway (D&KR), a distance of six miles. The contractor was one William Dargan, now known as the founder of railways in Ireland due to his participation in many of the main routes built on the island. The D&KR was notable in being one of the earliest dedicated commuter railways in the world. The planning undertaken is also noteworthy, a full traffic survey of the existing road traffic was made, in addition to careful land surveys.

As well as the traffic survey showing existing volumes to be healthy, there was the traffic potential from the ever expanding port at Kingstown. On 17 December 1834 the locomotive Hibernia brought a train the full route from the terminus at Westland Row (now Pearse Street Station) near Trinity College Dublin all the way to Kingstown. The railway was built to a gauge of 4' 8½" (1435mm). Most of the route is still part of the modern day Dublin Area Rapid Transit electrified commuter rail system.

Railway gauges

The gauge adopted by the main line railways in Ireland was that of 5 feet 3 inches (1600mm). This unusual width is only found in two other places: in the Australian states of Victoria and South Australia, and in Brazil.

The first three railways had lines of three different gauges, the dimensions being : the Dublin and Kingstown Railway, 4 ft. 8½ in. (1435mm); the Ulster Railway, 6 ft. 2 in. (1880mm); and the Dublin and Drogheda Railway, 5 ft. 3 in. (1600mm). A Royal Commission was set up to report on the muddle, with the result that the width of the Irish gauge was fixed at 5 ft. 3 in. 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.

Numerous narrow gauge systems were built around Ireland, usually to a gauge of 3 feet (914 mm): see the list below. Most are now closed, including what was the largest narrow-gauge system in the British Isles: those operated by the County Donegal Railways Joint Committee. The Irish narrow gauge today survives as heritage railways in both the Republic and in Northern Ireland; and, in the Republic, in the bogs of the Midlands as part of Bord na Móna's peat transport network.

Main line railways

By the beginning of the 20th century, those main line railways were:

Other railways

  • Completely independent
    • Ballycastle Railway 16.25 miles (26km) (3ft gauge); incorporated 1878, opened 1880; four locomotives 74 other vehicles
    • Bessbrook and Newry Light Railway (electric) 3 miles (5km) (3ft gauge); incorporated 1884; one locomotive 24 other vehicles
    • Castlederg and Victoria Bridge Tramway 7.25 miles (12km); (3ft gauge); incorporated 1883, opened 1884; three locomotives 34 other vehicles; closed 1933
    • Cavan and Leitrim Light Railway 48.5 miles (78km); (3ft gauge); incorporated 1883, opened 1888; nine locomotives 167 other vehicles
    • Cavehill and Whitewell Tramway 3.75 miles (6km)
    • Clogher Valley Light Railway 37 miles (59km) (3ft gauge); incorporated 1884, opened 1887; seven locomotives 127 other vehicles
    • Clonakilty Extension Light Railway 8.75 miles (14km); (3ft gauge); incorporated 1881, opened 1886
    • Cork and Macroom Direct Railway 24.5 miles (38km); incorporated 1861, opened 1866; four locomotives 132 other vehicles
    • Cork and Muskerry Light Railway (C&MLR) 18 miles (29km); (3ft gauge); incorporated 1883, opened 1887; six locomotives 87 other vehicles
      • Donoughmore Extension Railway 9 miles (14km) ( worked by C&MLR) incorporated 1900
    • Cork, Blackrock and Passage Railway 16 miles 26km);(originally standard Irish gauge, converted to 3ft gauge in 1900); incorporated 1846, opened 1850; four locomotives 57 other vehicles
    • Dublin and Blessington Steam Tramway 15.5 miles (25km); (3ft gauge); incorporated 1887, opened 1888; four locomotives 46 other vehicles
    • Dublin and Lucan Electric Railway 7 miles (11km) [1 foot 11.5 inches (600mm) gauge) 37 vehicles
    • Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway 26.5 miles (42km); incorporated 1863; six locomotives 230 other vehicles
    • Giant’s Causeway, Portrush and Bush Valley Railway 8 miles (13km); (3ft gauge); incorporated 1880; two electric locomotives 23 other vehicles
    • Listowel and Ballybunion Railway 10 miles (16km); (3ft gauge) (Lartigue system); incorporated 1886, opened 1888; three locomotives 39 other vehicles
    • Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway (L&LSR) 83 miles (133km); (3ft gauge); opened 1863/1904 extension; 18 locomotives 311 other vehicles
      • Letterkenny Railway 16 miles (26km); worked by L&LSR; opened 1883
    • Schull and Skibbereen Railway 14 miles (22km); four locomotives 61 other vehicles
    • Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway 49 miles (78km); (standard gauge); incorporated 1875, opened 1882; 11 locomotives 228 other vehicles; closed 1957
    • South Clare Railway 26 miles (42km); three locomotives 27 other vehicles
    • Timoleaugue and Courtmacsherry Railway (T&CR) 9 miles (14km); (3ft gauge); incorporated 1888, opened 1891; two locomotives 119 other vehicles
      • Ballinascarthy Railway; worked by T&CR; (3ft gauge); incorporated 1888, opened 1890
    • Tralee and Dingle Railway 37.5 miles (60km); (3ft gauge); incorporated 1884, opened 1891; eight locomotives 108 other vehicles
    • Waterford and Tramore Railway 7.25 miles (12km); (3ft gauge); incorporated 1851, opened 1853; four locomotives 32 other vehicles
    • West Clare Railway 27 miles (43km); (3ft gauge); opened 1887; eight locomotives 146 other vehicles
  • Worked by CB&SCR
    • Clonakilty Extension Railway 8.75 miles (14km); opened 1886
  • Worked by CDJC
    • Strabane and Letterkenny Railway 19.5 miles (31km); opened 1909
  • Worked by D&SER
    • City of Dublin Junction Railway 1.25 miles (2km); opened 1891
    • Dublin and Kingstown Railway 6 miles (10km); opened 1834
    • New Ross and Waterford Extension Railway 13.5 miles (22km); opened 1904
  • Worked by GNR(I)
    • Castleblayney, Keady and Armagh Railway 18.25 miles (29km); opened 1909
  • Worked by GSWR (standard gauge)
    • Athenry and Tuam Extension Light Railway 17 miles (27km)
    • Baltimore Extension Light Railway 8 miles (13km)
    • Tralee and Fenit Railway 8 miles (13km); opened 1887
    • Waterford, New Ross and Wexford Junction Railway 3.25 miles (5km) (leased from D&SER)
  • Worked by MGWR (standard gauge)
    • Ballinrobe and Claremorris Railway 12 miles (19km); opened 1892
    • Loughrea and Attymon Railway 9 miles (14km) opened 1890
  • Worked by NCCMid (standard gauge)
    • Carrickfergus Harbour Junction Light Railway 1 mile (2km); incorporated 1882 opened 1887

The information contained in this section obtained from Railway Year Book 1912 (Railway Publishing Company)

Belfast and County Down Railway

Main Article: Belfast and County Down Railway

Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway

Main article: Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway

County Donegal Railways Joint Committee

Main article: County Donegal Railways Joint Committee

Dublin and South Eastern Railway

Main article: Dublin and South Eastern Railway

Great Northern of Ireland Railway

Main article: Great Northern of Ireland Railway

The route of the Great Northern of Ireland Railway (GNR(I)) which exists today from Dublin to Belfast emerged, like so many others of the former major railway companies in Ireland, as the result of many amalgamations with smaller lines. The earliest dates of incorporation were for:

  • the Ulster Railway, the second railway project to start in Ireland, incorporated May 1836, partially opened 1839; it was originally constructed to a gauge of 6 feet 2 inches (1880mm), but was later altered to the Irish standard gauge.
  • the Dublin & Drogheda Railway (D&DR), also incorporated 1839, opened in 1844.

Together with other companies, the railway was first named The Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway; in 1875 they formed the Northern of Ireland Railway; and thirteen months later the title Great Northern of Ireland Railway was formed with yet more amalgamations. At its height, in the thirty or so years prior to WWI, the GNR(I) covered a large area of Ireland between Dublin, Belfast, Londonderry and Dundoran. By the end of WWII the company was in dire straits, and most of its network, apart from the main line, had been closed. This company remained intact until 1958, when it was split between the Ulster Transport Authority and Coras Iompair Eireann in Northern Ireland and the Republic, respectively.

Great Southern & Western Railway

Main article: Great Southern & Western Railway

Known still today as the 'premier line', the Great Southern & Western Railway (GS&WR) was the largest raiway system in Ireland. It began as a railway incorporated to connect Dublin with Cashel - incorporated 6 August 1844 - and which was afterwards extended to the city of Cork in southern Ireland. Between then and the end of the 19th century various other amalgamations took place, among them lines to Limerick and Waterford.

In 1900, as a result of Acts of Parliament, several important lines became part of the GS&WR system, among them the Waterford and Central Ireland Railway and the Waterford, Limerick and Western Railway. The latter gave connection to Sligo from Limerick. The Railway also connected with the Midland Great Western Railway main line at Athlone on its Dublin–Galway main line.

Midland Great Western Railway

Main article: Midland Great Western Railway

The Midland Great Western Railway main line extended from Dublin to the Midlands (Athlone) and onwards to Galway and Clifden; there were three branch lines, including those to Sligo and Killala in County Mayo. The Railway was first incorporated in 1845.

Northern Counties Committee

Main article: Northern Counties Committee Midland Railway

The Northern Counties Committee (Midland Railway) was an amalgamation of the Midland Railway with the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway which came about on 1 July 1903.


In 1888 the worlds first commercial monorail, named the Lartigue system after Charles Lartigue was constructed between Listowel and Ballybunion.

Struggling in the early 20th century

The rail system, both North and South, survived independence unscathed. 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 Saorstat Eireann were merged to form the Great Southern Railways. This company was amalgamated with the Dublin United Transport Company in 1945 to form Coras Iompair Eireann.

Partition however, would eventually exact a heavy toll on the cross–border routes (intrinsic to the County Donegal rail network).

World War II proved costly also for the rail system in the Republic. With the war effort, Britain could not spare coal for the neutral Ireland. Thus Irish steam engines often ran on poor quality Irish coal, wood, or not at all. Unsuccessful attempts were even made to burn peat. The deteriorating quality and frequency of service discouraged rail travellers, who were diminishing too due to steadily increasing emigration.

Diesel Dawn

Railways in the Republic were converted to diesel locomotives early, and swiftly, due to the run down nature of many steam engines, lack of coal, and desire for modernisation. In 1951 CIÉs first diesel railcars arrived, followed by an order for 100 diesel locomotives in 1953. A full list of the diesel locomotives used by the CIE can be found here.


In the 1950s and 1960s large swathes of route were closed in the Republic. Notable was the loss of the entire West Cork Railway network. Most branch lines in the Republic were also closed. By and large the main route network survived intact, with a relatively even distribution of cutbacks. The main routes from Dublin to Belfast, Sligo, Galway and the West of Ireland, Limerick, Cork and Kerry, Waterford and Wexford survived. The cross country route from Waterford to Limerick and onwards to Sligo survived for a time, although services would later cease on almost all the route. The North Kerry line from Limerick to Tralee survived until the 1970s. One notable closure was that of the Dublin & South Eastern Harcourt Street railway line in Dublin. As an important commuter artery, it should never have been closed. In 2004, the route reopened as part of the new LUAS tram system.

The Ulster Transport Authority is particularly reviled in railway circles. In a few short years, a large network across Ulster was shut down, leaving only Belfast to Derry, Dublin and branches to Larne and Bangor. CIÉ, the transport company in the Republic, had no option but to close their end of cross-border routes. Today a gaping hole remains in the island's rail network, with a distance of 130 miles from Derry to Mullingar untouched by railways, and no rail service to large towns such as Letterkenny and Monaghan.

Steady as she goes

The 1970s and 1980s saw a long period without investment in the rail system, with the notable exception of the DART. Most rail and rolling stock had enough of a working lifespan remaining to get by. However, upkeep and maintenance also suffered, leading to a deteriorating quality of service and reliability. Safety conditions also suffered, to the point where decisive action was required after a nasty rail accident on the route to Sligo, which could have been worse.

The DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) was a bright light in an otherwise bleak rail era for Ireland. The north-south commuter route in and out of Dublin was electrified, and new frequent services run from 1984 onwards. It was intended to expand the service, with routes to the west of the city, but economic conditions mitigated against this. In fact, the number of trains available on the DART remained unaltered until the mid-1990s.

The only investment during those two decades was in some carriages, some of which were second-hand, to the extent that British Rail had scrapped them! Cutbacks were also experienced, with the closure of the line to Youghal in County Cork and the removal of the North Kerry line. Unused sections of track were allowed to sit and rot.

Rail revival

Fortunately, in the 1990s the Republic experienced an economic boom (known colloquially as the Celtic tiger). This allowed substantial investment to be made. 32 new locomotives (designated 201 Class) were purchased from General Motors, 4 for NIR and the balance for Iarnród Éireann. New De-dietrich carriages were also purchased for the cross-border 'Enterprise' service. Meanwhile the route network was also being upgraded to continuous welded rail (CWR) while old mechanical signalling was also replaced by electronic signalling.

In the mid-1990s, the greater Dublin area continued to experience a population boom. Such commuter trains as existed were aging slam-door stock on unreliable old locomotives (the better stock was for intercity use). The DART was limited in terms of capacity and route. New diesel railcars were ordered, and added first to the Kildare suburban route. The route to Maynooth was upgraded, in addition to further diesel railcars being ordered. Again, the North-South Dublin route saw new railcars provide services to Drogheda (County Louth) and Arklow (County Wicklow). A number of orders were made for new DART carriages, the first in over a decade.

The suburban stations were also upgraded, allowing disabled access with new elevators at footbridges. Extra roads were provided out of Dublin, while the main terminals Connolly Station and Heuston Station were upgraded (the latter completed in 2004 with over double the previous capacity). A new railcar servicing depot was built at Drogheda (Inchicore continues to be used for locomotives and carriages).

Northern Ireland too has experienced investment in rail in recent years. The Central Station has been redesigned, while a more direct route out of Belfast was reopened for trains to Derry. The line to Bangor was relaid. Railcars have also been ordered for NIR. The single-track line to Derry, north of Coleraine continues to be of a poor standard. A derailment in 2003 caused by cliff-side boulders falling on the line, closed the route for some time. In the face of long journey times and a frequent (and generally faster) bus service, the route's future remains in some doubt.

The future

Iarnród Éireann placed an order for 67 intercity carriages in 2003. In 2004 an order was also placed for 100 "regional railcars" (DMUs). These will mostly go towards meeting demand on the railways, although some older carriages are due for retirement, and at peak times, capacity is below that needed. It is suspected that Iarnród Éireann wish to phase out all locomotive hauled services other than those using the 67 new Intercity carriages. The existing 100 newest carriages (only from the 1980s) may be phased out (capacity being taken up by regional railcars). More orders of suburban railcars and DARTs are likely, but the Dublin suburban routes are almost at capacity. Quadrupling of the route north of Dublin and west to Kildare is planned.

Some call for the expansion of the rail network in the Republic. The route from Limerick to Waterford is due to have a realistic service for the first time in decades. Nevertheless, this is the only non-Dublin intercity route in existence, which has earned the railway network in Ireland the colloquial title of "Paleways" or "Palerail" (derived from The Pale). A railway right of way exists from Limerick, up through the west, to Sligo. This has been titled the Western Railway Corridor (WRC) and some see it as a possible counterbalance to investment in Dublin. Parts of the line itself are of questionable integrity. The most sensible proposals are to extend from Ennis to Athenry, then from Athenry to Tuam, with an extension from Tuam to Claremorris to link up with the Westport/Ballina line to Dublin. The proposed WRC extension from Claremorris to Sligo encompasses a particularly bad section of track; although some WRC advocates suggest beginning with that section, this plan seems unrealistic.

Northern Ireland Railways look to continue to be in a precarious position. The new railcars, it is hoped, will boost the survival chances of the 'non-core network' (Coleraine–Derry and Whitehead–Larne). A so-called consultation process is ongoing as part of a suspected closure timetable by the Department of Regional Development (the direct-rule replacement for Northern Ireland's transport minister). The collaborative Enterprise service is also in some trouble. Infrastructure works to upgrade Dublin's rail network will result in bus transfers for part of the journey until early 2005. At the same time, the fare is now a significant incentive to travel by bus or car, utilising the new Motorways between the two cities. As a final blow, reliability is at an all-time low, due to unresolved operational difficulties in locomotives supplying power to carriages. Bad design has meant that locomotives are frequently burning out (so far three incidents of actual fire have also occurred).

See also

External links


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