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175 Years of Railways in Dundalk

Steam locomotive No.207 in Dundalk station. Photo by Roger Joanes.

Former Great Northern Railway (Ireland) VS Class steam locomotive No.207 "Boyne" pauses at Dundalk with a Belfast to Dublin train, 1st September 1963. Photo by kind permission of Roger Joanes, check out his gallery here.

2024 marks the 175th anniversary of railway services to Dundalk. An important station on the Dublin to Belfast mainline to this day, it was once a major confluence point of no less than 3 different railway routes. Let’s take a look at the history of Dundalk as a railway town over the past 175 years.

The Early Days of Dundalk Railway Station

The first railway station in Dundalk was opened on February 15th, 1849, and was known at the time as Dundalk Junction. The junction referred to was that between the eventual Dublin & Belfast Junction Railway and the Dundalk & Enniskillen Railway, which opened their line between Dundalk and Castleblaney that year. This would later be extended to take in locations such as Clones and Enniskillen itself, along with a branchline to Cavan. This station was located south of the current one, and designed, along with many other stations on the route, by Sir John MacNeill. The Enniskillen line terminated at a station in Quay St and crossed the Belfast line on the level at a location known as Dundalk Square Crossing.

Great Northern Railway Days and a New Station for Dundalk

In 1875, the Dublin & Belfast Junction Railway merged with the Dublin & Drogheda Railway. In turn, this merged with the Irish North Western Railway and Ulster Railway a year later. This new entity was known as the Great Northern Railway (Ireland)—at the time there was already a Great Northern Railway in England. The current station was opened in 1894 and designed by William Hamilton Mills, sporting his distinctive polychromatic brick style, dominated by yellow, which can also be found at other former GNR railway stations such as those in Lisburn, Malahide, and Howth. It is an island platform, with a south-facing bay. The partition of Ireland in 1921 brought with it custom controls for cross-border routes such as those of the GNR, with customs stops taking place at Dundalk (Goraghwood, near Newry, was the customs post north of the border for trains). The Great Northern did much to market its services to not only commuters but also to tourists and holidaymakers, with one of its most famous trains, the Bundoran Express, operating from Dublin to the titular Donegal resort via Dundalk.

The Dundalk, Newry & Greenore Railway

As if the existing confluence of railways at Dundalk wasn’t enough, a further company was added to the mix in 1873 when the Dundalk, Newry & Greenore Railway opened its line from Dundalk Quay Street. This was operated by the London & North Western Railway, whose style was reflected in the locomotives, carriages, and buildings. This was amalgamated into the London Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) in 1922, with the Irish GNR taking over operations in 1933. Services ceased in 1951, with its carriages still adorned in LNWR colours which had disappeared from English lines nearly three decades before. One of these fine vehicles is preserved in the Ulster Transport Museum in Cultra.

The end of the Great Northern Railway and change at Dundalk (literally)

The struggling finances of the Great Northern Railway led to government control being established in 1952, with the establishment of the Great Northern Railway Board, or GNR(B), which was jointly administered by the Dublin and Stormont governments. Services were canceled on the line to Enniskillen in 1957, although goods traffic as far as Clones would continue until 1960 (the stub as far as Barrack Street yard continued to be used by freight trains until 1995). This situation would not last however, and in 1958 the GNR(B) was disbanded and its routes and rolling stock were split between Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ) in the Irish Republic and the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) in Northern Ireland. The change was literal in some respects; for a period CIÉ locomotives would be swapped for UTA ones at Dundalk and vice versa. As part of the 1916 Rising 50th anniversary celebrations in 1966, the station was officially named ‘Dundalk Clarke Station’ after Rising leader Thomas Clarke. In 1987 CIÉ was split into three operating subsidiaries, with Dundalk passing to the control of Irish Rail/Iarnród Éireann. Freight trains serving the Harp brewery were a significant source of traffic at the time, initially using Barrack Street yard on the former Quay St line before being transferred to a new yard built on the former Irish North line in the mid-1990s. These trains would run until the mid-2000s when Dundalk became a passenger-only station.

Dundalk as a Major Engineering Works

With it being almost halfway along the Dublin to Belfast mainline, Dundalk proved to be an ideal location for the Great Northern Railway to establish its engineering works in the 1890s. This massive site was located on both sides of the mainline and was responsible for the maintenance, overhaul, and rebuild of the GNR’s extensive fleet of both road and rail vehicles, carriages, buses, locomotives, wagons, and everything in between. One of the major innovations to come from Dundalk Works was the GNR’s railbuses. The comfort of the railbuses was achieved by the ingenious development of placing the steel railway tyre outside of the rubber tyre. These were known as the Howden-Meredith, after their designers, Works Managers George Howden and R.W. Meredith. With the demise of the Great Northern Railway Board in 1958, much of the Works itself passed to the Dundalk Engineering Company, with three-wheel Heinkel Bubble Cars perhaps being its most famous product. It continued to be a major employer for the town, and in the 1960s would get the contract to assemble a series of steam heat generator vans for CIE using parts from Holland. (As such, the vehicles became interchangeably known as ‘Dutch vans’ or ‘Dundalk vans’). The awarding of a future contract to the UK caused enough local consternation that it warranted a mention in the Dáil at the time. The running depot itself would pass to CIE, and in the 1960s became one of the locations used to scrap redundant steam locomotives. Today, some of the former depot is in use as a regional depot by Bus Éireann, Ireland’s state bus operator.

Dundalk station today

Despite the loss of the former lines to Clones and Greenore, Dundalk remains a major station on the Iarnród Éireann network. It serves as both a stop on the Dublin-Belfast Enterprise service and is also the terminus of the outer-suburban commuter service from Dublin. It is also the terminus of Ireland’s longest timetabled service, the early morning weekday service from Rosslare Europort, a four-hour journey. Beside the station is the appropriately named Great Northern Brewery, whose distilling equipment may be glimpsed from the station carpark. While much of the original yard has been long since removed, some sidings remain in use on the inward side of the station, principally used for stabling railcars used on the commuter service to Dublin.

Belmond Irish tour locomotive at Dundalk railway station

Formerly used on the Belmond Grand Hibernian Irish tour train, 201 class locomotive No.216 "River Dodder" pauses at Dundalk station with a Dublin-Belfast "Enterprise" service, March 2024.

Steeped in history and an architectural gem, Dundalk station is also host to a railway museum containing artefacts. Adjacent to this museum is the former Dundalk Central signal cabin, which was relocated to the platform during rebuilding works in the 1990s. Do pay a visit next time you’re in the station.

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