History of rail transport in Ireland

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Ireland's extensive rail network was largely dismantled during the 20th century.
1906 Viceregal Commission rail map of Ireland.
Map of Irish rail network between 1925 and 1930.

The history of rail transport in Ireland began only a decade later than that of Great Britain. By its peak in 1920, Ireland had 3,500 route miles (3,500 km). 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.

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 runs preserved steam trains on the main line, with the Irish Traction Group preserving diesel locomotives, and operating on the main line. The Downpatrick & County Down Railway is the only self-contained full-size heritage railway in Ireland.

Transport before railways[edit]

Transport on a country-wide scale began in 1710 with the introduction by the General Post Office of mail coaches on the main routes between towns. Private operators added to the routes, and an established "turnpike" road system started in the 1730s. In 1715 the Irish Parliament took steps to encourage inland navigation, but it was not until 1779 that the first 19 km (12 mi) section of the Grand Canal was opened. The addition of the Royal Canal and river navigation (particularly on the River Shannon) meant that freight could be transported more easily. Charles Bianconi established his horse-car services in the south in 1815, the first of many such passenger-carrying operations. Despite these improvements huge areas of Ireland still relied on a basic road system; turnpikes were still slow and canals were expensive.

Ireland's first railway[edit]

The Dublin and Kingstown line in 1837.
Dublin and Kingstown Railway, by John Harris.

Although a railway between Limerick and Waterford had been authorised as early as 1826 (the same year as Britain's first locomotive-drawn line, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway)[1] it wasn't until 1834 that the first railway was built, the Dublin and Kingstown Railway (D&KR) between Westland Row in Dublin and Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire), a distance of 10 km (6 mi).[2] Due to local opposition the first terminus, Kingstown Harbour, was adjacent to the West Pier. It took a further three years before the line reached the site of the present station. The contractor was William Dargan, called "the founder of railways in Ireland", due to his participation in many of the main routes. The D&KR were notable in being one of the earliest dedicated commuter railways in the world. The planning undertaken was also noteworthy: a full 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 potential from the ever expanding port at Kingstown. On 9 October 1834 the locomotive Hibernia brought a train the full route from the Westland Row terminus (now Pearse Station) to Kingstown. The railway was built to 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) standard gauge.

The entire route forms part of the present day Dublin Area Rapid Transit electrified commuter rail system.

Railway gauges[edit]

Main article: Rail gauge in Ireland

The track gauge adopted by the mainline railways is 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm). This unusual gauge is otherwise found only in the Australian states of Victoria, southern New South Wales (as part of the Victorian rail network) and South Australia (where it was introduced by the Irish railway engineer F. W. Sheilds), and in Brazil.

The first three railways all had different gauges: the Dublin and Kingstown Railway, 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in); the Ulster Railway, 6 ft 2 in (1,880 mm); and the Dublin and Drogheda Railway, 5 ft 2 in (1,575 mm). Following complaints from the UR, the Board of Trade investigated the matter, and in 1843 recommended the use of 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm) and that compensation be paid to the UR for the costs incurred in changing to the new gauge.

Main line railways[edit]

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

Belfast and County Down Railway[edit]

The Belfast and County Down Railway (B&CDR) linked Belfast south-eastwards into County Down. It was incorporated in 1846; the first section opened in 1848; absorbed into the Ulster Transport Authority in 1948 and all but the line to Bangor closed in 1950.

Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway[edit]

The Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway (CB&SCR) was one of the major Irish railways; incorporated 1845, the first section opened 1851. It operated from Cork, serving towns along the southern coastal strip to the west of the city. It had a route length of 150 km (93.75 mi), all single line. The Railway was largely concerned with tourist traffic, and there were many road car routes connecting with the line, including one from Bantry to Killarney called The Prince of Wales Route, which operated at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Clonakilty Extension Railway 14 km (8.75 mi), opened 1886, was worked by the CB&SCR

County Donegal Railways Joint Committee[edit]

The County Donegal Railways Joint Committee (CDRJC) operated in north-west Ireland during the 20th century. The parent line opened 1863, 178 km (111 mi) (narrow gauge). It was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1906 which authorised the joint purchase of the then Donegal Railway Company by the Great Northern Railway of Ireland and the Midland Railway Northern Counties Committee.

The Strabane and Letterkenny Railway 31 km (19.5 mi), opened 1909, was worked by the CDRJC

Dublin and South Eastern Railway[edit]

The Dublin and South Eastern Railway (D&SER) was originally incorporated, by Act of Parliament in 1846, as the Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow and Dublin Railway Company; incorporated 1846, the first section opened 1856. It was known more simply as the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway Company between 1860 and 31 December 1906 when it became the DSE. Amongst the lines forming the DSE were:

City of Dublin Junction Railway 2 km (1.25 mi), opened 1891, the Dublin and Kingstown Railway 10 km (6 mi); opened 1834, and the New Ross and Waterford Extension Railway 22 km (13.5 mi); opened 1904 were all worked by the D&SER.

Great Northern Railway of Ireland[edit]

The route of the Great Northern Railway of Ireland (GNR(I)), which exists today from Dublin to Belfast and Drogheda to Navan, 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 1880 mm (6 ft 2 in), but was later altered, under protest, to the new Irish standard gauge. The companies forming the Dublin to Belfast line and those connecting to it were obliged to contribute part of this cost.
  • the Dublin and Drogheda Railway (D&D), also incorporated 1839, opened in 1844.
  • the Irish North Western Railway (INWR), incorporated in 1862 in a merger between the Dundalk and Enniskillen Railway and the Enniskillen and Derry Railway, operated from Dundalk and Portadown via Enniskillen and Omagh to Derry.
  • the Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway (D&BJct), incorporated in 1845 and opened in stages between 1849 and 1853.

In 1875, the D&D and the D&BJct merged to form the Northern Railway of Ireland and thirteen months later the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) (GNR(I)) was formed when the Ulster Railway and the INWR joined this concern. Other minor railways were subsequently taken over. At its height, in the thirty or so years prior to World War I, the GNR(I) covered a large area of Ireland between Dublin, Belfast, Derry and Bundoran. By the end of World War II the company was in dire straits. It struggled on until 1953 when it was nationalised by the two Governments, becoming the Great Northern Railway Board.

In 1957, the Government of Northern Ireland unilaterally ordered the GNRB to close most of their lines west of the Bann within Northern Ireland. This left some useless stubs within the Republic, such as through Pettigo station; 13 km (8 mi) from the border to Bundoran and Monaghan to Glaslough. The Republic of Ireland Government had no choice but to abandon these stubs. The one exception, which survived until 1965, was the line from Portadown to Derry via Dungannon and Omagh.

The GNRB was abolished in 1958, when it was split between the Ulster Transport Authority and Córas Iompair Éireann in Northern Ireland and the Republic, respectively. This gave rise to the interesting situation whereby part of the line between Strabane and Derry was in the Republic of Ireland and the stations and permanent way staff on this section were CIÉ employees, even though there was no physical link to the rest of the CIÉ rail network.

The Castleblayney, Keady and Armagh Railway 29 km (18.25 mi), opened 1909 was worked by the GNR(I)

Great Southern & Western Railway[edit]

Still known today as the 'premier line', the Great Southern & Western Railway (GS&WR) was the largest railway 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. Various other amalgamations took place until the end of the 19th century, 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, including the Waterford and Central Ireland Railway and the Waterford, Limerick and Western Railway. The latter connected Sligo to Limerick. The Railway also connected with the Midland Great Western Railway main line at Athlone on its Dublin–Galway main line.

The Athenry and Tuam Extension Light Railway 27 km (17 mi), Baltimore Extension Light Railway 13 km (8 mi), Tralee and Fenit Railway 13 km (8 mi); opened 1887 and Waterford, New Ross and Wexford Junction Railway 5 km (3.25 mi) (leased from D&SER) were worked by the Great Southern & Western Railway.

Midland Great Western Railway[edit]

The Midland Great Western Railway main line connected Dublin to Galway and Clifden via (Athlone); there were a number of branch lines:

The Railway was first incorporated in 1845.

Both the Ballinrobe and Claremorris Railway 19 km (12 mi), opened 1892 and the Loughrea and Attymon Railway 14 km (9 mi), opened 1890 were worked by the Midland Great Western.

Northern Counties Committee[edit]

Main articles: 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 was formed on 1 July 1903.

Additionally, the Carrickfergus Harbour Junction Light Railway 2 km (1 mi); was incorporated in 1882, opening in 1887 and was worked by the Northern Counties Committee.

Other railways[edit]

Independent railways[edit]

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


Ballybunion, c. 1902

The Listowel and Ballybunion Railway was opened in 1888. It was the world's first commercial monorail, named the Lartigue system after Charles Lartigue. It operated between Listowel and Ballybunion in County Kerry until 1924.

A modern day re-creation of this system operates in Listowel. Photographs of this can be found here: Lartigue Railway Photographs 2004

The system in the early 20th century[edit]

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 (Saorstát Éireann), as the Anti-Treaty IRA systematically targeted them and the Free State had to build a network of fortified blockhouses to protect the railways. One of the most spectacular attacks on the infrastructure was the bombing of the Mallow viaduct. (See The Civil War and the Railways)

In 1925, the railway companies within Saorstát Éireann were merged to form the Great Southern Railways. This company was amalgamated in 1945 with the Dublin United Transport Company to form Córas Iompair Éireann.

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

World War II also proved costly for the rail system in the Republic. With the war effort, Britain could not spare coal for 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, whose numbers were also diminishing due to steadily increasing emigration.


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


Disused railway viaduct at Lispole, County Kerry on the Dingle-Tralee line

In the 1950s and 1960s large swathes of route were closed in the Republic but evidence is still visible in the landscape, as are more significant features like bridges and viaducts. 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, despite being regarded as an important commuter artery. In 2004, part of the route reopened as part of the new Luas tram system. South of the current terminus, decisions taken by CIÉ and Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, to sell the trackbed through Foxrock and allow houses to be built on it near Shankill respectively will make integrating this route into any future Metro or Luas system difficult.

In a few years, the Ulster Transport Authority shut down a large network across Ulster, 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 large hole remains in the island's rail network, with a distance of 210 km (130 mi) from Derry to Mullingar untouched by railways, and no rail service to large towns such as Letterkenny and Monaghan.

The 1970s and 1980s[edit]

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a long period without substantial investment in the rail system, with the notable exception of the Dublin Area Rapid Transit (DART), in which the north-south commuter route in and out of Dublin was electrified, and new frequent services ran from 1984 onwards. It was intended to expand the service, with routes to the west of the city, but economic conditions militated against this. In fact, the size of the DART fleet remained unaltered until the mid-1990s.

Also, 1976 saw the introduction of a small fleet of 18 high-speed diesel-electric locomotives built by General Motors Electro-Motive Diesel at La Grange, Illinois. These 2,475 hp (1,846 kW) units, 071 Class, were capable of speeds of 145 km/h (90 mph) and immediately began operating express services such as the Cork-Dublin line.

1 August 1980 saw the worst Irish transportation disaster in recent times, when 18 people were killed and 62 injured in a rail accident in Buttevant on the main Cork-Dublin line. A train carrying 230 passengers was derailed when it crashed into a siding at 110 km/h (70 mph). The passengers who were most severely injured or killed were seated in coaches with wooden frames. This structure was incapable of surviving a high speed crash and did not come near to the safety standards provided by modern (post 1950s) metal bodied coaches. This accident led to a major review of the national rail safety policy and resulted in the rapid elimination of the wooden-bodied coaches that had formed part of the train.

The decision to purchase a new fleet of modern intercity coaches based on the British Rail Mark 3 design was quickly made. These coaches, an already well proven design, were built by BREL in Derby, England and, under licence, at CIÉ's own workshops at Inchicore in Dublin between 1980 and 1989. Other carriages to join the fleet in the 1980s were second-hand ex British Rail Mark 2s.

Cutbacks continued in this period: in 1975 the last rural branch line between Attymon Junction and Loughrea was closed, the line between Limerick and Claremorris and a number of local stations on main lines (such as Buttevant) lost their passenger services. Freight closures at the end of the 1980s included the closure of the line to Youghal in County Cork and the removal of the North Kerry line.

1990s rail revival[edit]

In the 1990s, the Republic experienced an economic boom (known colloquially as the Celtic Tiger). This allowed substantial investment to be made. 34 new locomotives (designated 201 Class) were purchased from General Motors, including two for Northern Ireland Railways (NIR). 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) and old mechanical signalling was replaced by electronic signalling.

In the mid-1990s, the Greater Dublin area continued to experience a population boom. Such commuter trains as existed were ageing slam-door stock on unreliable old locomotives (the better stock was for intercity use). DART was limited in terms of capacity and route. New diesel railcars were ordered, and added first to the Kildare suburban route. The route from Clonsilla to Maynooth was double-tracked and further diesel railcars ordered, and the reopening of stations such as Drumcondra. Again, the North-South Dublin route saw new railcars provide services to Dundalk and Arklow. A number of orders were made for new DART carriages, the first for over a decade.


The line was electrified and DART services extended in the south to Greystones in 2000 and on to Malahide on the Northern line.

DART and suburban stations were also upgraded, allowing access for people with disabilities with new lifts at footbridges and lengthened platforms to accommodate 8-car sets. Extra roads were provided out of Dublin, while the main terminals of Connolly Station and Heuston Station were upgraded (the latter completed in 2004, doubling its 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 recent rail investment. Central Station has been redesigned, and the Bleach Green-Antrim line, a more direct route for trains to Derry, was reopened in 2001 (although this led to the suspension of the Lisburn – Antrim line and the closure of three rural stations). The line to Bangor was relaid. A new railcar fleet has entered service. 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 onto 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.

In March 2007, as part of the Transport 21 initiative, Docklands railway station opened, the first new station in Dublin city centre since 1891's Tara Street.

In July 2009 commuter trains began to run from Mallow to Cork, and on part of the reopened Cork to Youghal line to Midleton and to Cobh, a number of stations were opened, and there are plans for more stations on the lines.[3]


In September 2010 services began from Dunboyne to Dublin Docklands after the redevelopment of 7.5 km section of the old Navan railway line which had been closed in 1963 from Dunboyne to Clonsilla on the Maynooth line. There are proposals for further development of this line to Navan as part of Transport 21 by 2015.

The future[edit]

Iarnród Éireann placed orders for 67 intercity carriages in 2003 and for 150 "regional railcars" (diesel multiple unit) in 2004. 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 requirements. 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 with 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. "Four-tracking" of the route west to Kildare has commenced.

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. 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. Phase 1 is complete with the new line from Ennis to Athenry now open, Phase 2 due to begin late 2010 from Athenry to Tuam, with an extension from Tuam to Claremorris to link up with the Westport/Ballina line to Dublin. Future proposals will see the line extended to Sligo, where it will also link with Knock Airport.

Northern Ireland Railways will undergo a major investment programme over the next few years, with track upgrades to the line between Belfast and Derry and up to 20 new trains replacing the remaining Class 80 and Class 450 rolling stock. The new trains are a development of the existing Class 3000 units and they are scheduled to enter service in 2011.

Until 2013 Ireland was the only European Union state that had not implemented EU Directive 91/440 and related legislation, having derogated its obligation to split train operations and infrastructure businesses; a similar situation exists in Northern Ireland. A consultation on the restructuring of IÉ is expected to take place in 2012. The derogation ended on 14 March 2013. Irish Transport Minister Leo Varadkar indicated that any open access private operators would not receive any subsidy to operate.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rynne, C. (2006). Industrial Ireland 1750–1930: An Archaeology. Cork: The Collins Press. ISBN 978-1-905172-04-7. 
  2. ^ Murray, K. A. (1981). Ireland's First Railway. Dublin: Irish Railway Record Society. ISBN 0-904078-07-8. 
  3. ^ Glounthaune Midelton Railway
  4. ^ Sources:

External links[edit]