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A look at Historic Irish Excursion and Tourist Trains

Updated: Feb 25

In today’s world where airlines make it possible to visit far flung capitals for a day trip and bring mediterranean beaches within the grasp of just about anyone in Europe, it’s amazing that the domestic railtours and special excursion trains remain a popular means of leisure travel not just among railway enthusiasts but people in general. There’s something nice about being able to sit back with friends and watch Ireland fly by your window, perhaps while enjoying a nice snack or drink. However, the concept of special excursion trains goes way back beyond the days of railway enthusiast groups such as our own; excursion specials have been popular in Ireland for almost as long as railways have been here. In this article, we will take a look at some of the famous named-excursion trains operated by CIE and its predecessors over time. It is by no means exhaustive, for the vast majority of such specials didn’t even have titles, but we hope that you will enjoy an insight into the rich history of leisure rail by rail in Ireland.

The “Tourist Express”

The Midland Great Western Railway (MGWR) was an early operator of excursion trains in Ireland and was quick to embrace the tourism market. As early as 1853 the company was operating excursion trains from Dublin to Galway. While their mainline network stretched from Dublin to Galway with secondary routes to Mayo and Sligo, perhaps their most famous excursion train was that which operated to one of their branches, that to Clifden. The line to Clifden opened in 1895, having been constructed largely on work schemes and funded by a £264,000 grant, but operated by the MGWR. They were quick to recognise the potential of tourism in the area, acquiring a hotel in Recess which was provided with its own platform. Similarly, they were the propitiers of a hotel up the coast in Mallaranny, on a branch from Westport to Achill. In 1903 they commenced a special “Tourist Express” from Dublin’s Broadstone station through to Clifden via Galway. This was quite a distinct train, sporting a special livery of blue with lining, a major departure from the more traditional colours used by the MGWR before (and after). Some locomotives were painted in a new blue livery. Unusually for a service over an Irish branchline, the train included a dining car. This itself was unusual, a twelve-wheeled vehicle, No.3, built in Broadstone Works. Other carriages included a mix of bogie vehicles and the once ubiquitous MGWR six-wheelers. A contemporary report in the July 1903 Railway Magazine describes it as leaving Dublin at 12 noon, arriving at Galway at 3.10pm, ‘Recess Railway Hotel Station’ at 4.35pm and Clifden at 5pm. Mention is also made of the train serving Mallaranny and Achill, however this would have involved a connection as there was never any direct connection between the terminus at Clifden and the Mayo lines. The company is known to have had motor car connections between the two branch lines. The “Tourist Express” only operated for a few years, ceasing after the 1906 season, and the special livery gradually was repainted in the standard MGWR scheme. The line itself closed in the 1930s, however, there is a preservation effort hard at work to restore part of the line at Ma’am Cross, while at least one of the tourist train carriages survives, traces of the blue livery having been found on MGWR 6-wheeler No.53 at Downpatrick. Interestingly, the concept of blue carriages on tourist trains would be used twice again, the RPSI adopting a shade for their Cravens in the late 2000s, while Belmond Grand Hibernian used another shade of blue for their mk3 tour train set which operated between 2016 and 2019.

“Sea Breeze” excursion trains

Reference to ‘Sea Breezes’ appeared in the Great Southern Railways’ advertising copy at least as early as 1928, in relation to enticing the public to visit south Dublin coastal resorts such as Dalkey and Killiney. The branding of special trains themselves as “Sea Breezes” would primarily be applied to the GSR’s excursion specials along the former Dublin & South Eastern Railway (DSER) mainline to the coastal towns of Wicklow and Arklow; this nomenclature appears to date back to the early 1930s although the GSR was operating specials to these locations. Indeed, prior to the GSR’s formation, the DSER itself had a history of operating seaside excursions. They were primarily operated from the former terminus at Harcourt Street rather than Westland Row, although special fares were available from stations between Amiens St and Killiney, with passengers changing to the “Sea Breeze” excursions at Bray. After the closure of Harcourt St station in 1958, Amiens St (now Connolly) was used as the starting point of the “Sea Breeze” trains. The cheap fares made these special trains very popular and loadings were such that it was not uncommon for 2 locomotives to be used, and for extra trains to be put on. While not on the sea, Avoca was listed as an optional destination, and indeed the occasional excursion continued to stop at the station into the 1970s after it officially closed in 1964. Having ceased after 1939, CIÉ revived the concept for the 1950 summer season. The locomotives used varied, not only including original DSER engines but also from ex-GSWR J15s and ex-MGWR 2-4-0s (possibly 2-4-0s used on the Clifden “Tourist Express” decades earlier), often hauling a motley collection of vintage 6-wheel carriages. Tank engines such as the GSR-built 670 class which otherwise rarely wandered away from the Dublin suburban area. As Arklow never had a turntable, locomotives had to run light to use one at nearby Woodenbridge Junction. In the 1956 season, diesel locomotives took over. Railcar sets are also to known to have worked the “Sea Breeze”.

While primarily associated with special trains along the former DSER, the name “Sea Breeze” was also for excursions on routes, such as Cork to Youghal, another popular seaside destination. It’s a name that has endured, having seen use on an IRRS excursion to Youghal in the 1980s and has been adopted by the RPSI for their Rosslare line specials since 1989. Incidentally, the “Sea Breeze” festival is held in Arklow every July.

The Radio Train

A British Movietone reel about the Killarney Radio Train from1950

Perhaps one of the most famous Irish excursion trains, the “Radio Train” was a CIÉ innovation of 1950. It was more or less what it said on the tin, with an onboard studio carriage from which a presenter entertained passengers with commentary and music (the format itself had been initiated on the Cork line centenary specials of 1949). Not unlike our own excursions, commemorative Radio Train badges were produced. Additional carriages would be converted to radio saloons as the train’s popularity increased. Killarney was perhaps the most popular destination, although Galway also featured, with Cork and Sligo also featuring over time. Introduced while steam trains were still king on the Irish railway network, the locomotives sported a rather large novelty headboard shaped like a lightning bolt, classes included the ‘Woolwich’ K1/K1a class moguls and the larger 400 class 4-6-0s. The “Radio Train” continued to operate into the diesel era, with locomotives such as the Metropolitian Vickers A class diesels going on the sport the famous headboard. The excursions ended in the 1970s, but would see a brief revival by Iarnród Éireann in the mid 1990s, this time making use of the mk3 “Executive” carriage set and hauled by the then-new GM 201 Class diesel locomotives. Again, Killarney was a key destination but not the only one.

The Mystery Train

A simple, but highly popular concept, Mystery excursion were operated by the GSR offering Dubliners a day out by rail to a surprise provincial destination; the GNR(I) also operated them. As with the “Sea Breezes”, the concept was revived by CIÉ in the 1950s and remained a popular staple over the following decades. On some occasions they took passengers to a regional festival, such Enniscorthy’s “Strawberry Fair” or the cattle fairs of Ballinasloe. Stories abound of staff being hassled for information as to where a given week’s “Mystery Train” was bound for. A genius, easy marketing concept that served well to boost rail as a popular travel choice in an era when private cars were becoming more and more accessible.

As mentioned at the start of this article, this is but a selection of the vast array of excursion trains operated in Ireland over the past few hundred years (we might look at more in a future article). And while such trains don’t tend be as much a feature of the main operating companies’ programmes today (though not entirely gone) their legacy lives in through the railtours operated by organisations such as our own, despite the promulgation of motorways and budget airlines. Testament, we think, to the mix of convenience and relaxation that only rail travel can bring. Long may it continue.

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