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A virtual tour of Belfast's terminus railway stations, past & present.

Updated: May 10

Since 1839, Belfast has enjoyed a fascinating and diverse railway history; a story of change, death and rebirth. Belfast had no less than three major railway companies operating into the city at the height of the railway age, (and a fourth through it, albeit briefly) each with its own network of mainlines, secondary routes and branch lines. Unlike other cities on the island, none of Belfast's original railway terminus buildings survive, though their actual locations remain active in all but one. In this article we will take a look at them all.

Belfast Great Victoria Street

Steam train at Belfast Great Victoria Street Station in the 1960s.

Belfast Great Victoria Street station in July 1963, with ex-NCC Mogul Locomotive No.104 backing down onto an evening service to Portadown. Photo by kind courtesy of Ernie's Railway Archive - view more of his extensive collection here.

The first of Belfast’s railway termini was Great Victoria Street, which opened in August 1839 as part of the commencement of services along the Ulster Railway from Belfast to Lisburn. Originally laid to 6'2 broad gauge, this was in fact, Ireland's second railway line. The terminus was known simply as ‘Belfast’ station until 1852, and had new buildings constructed in 1848, designed by John Godwin. From 1852 to 1856 it was known as “Belfast Victoria Street”, after which the street itself was renamed “Great Victoria Street”, with the station following suit. The Ulster Railway had by then been linked to the Dublin & Drogheda Railway via the Dublin & Belfast Junction Railway in the 1850s, with Great Victoria Street thus adopting an important role as the Belfast gateway for trains to and from Dublin. The 1860s would see Derry added to the list of destinations served by Great Victoria Street, with the completion of what became known as the “Derry Road” railway line from Portadown to Derry via Omagh and Dungannon. In 1863 the 'Boyne Bridge' was constructed over the station replacing an earlier level crossing, going on to be an iconic feature of the station in its first two incarnations. The railways concerned would eventually merge to form the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) in 1876, having briefly been known as the Northern Railway of Ireland from 1875. A connection with the Belfast & County Down Railway's terminus at Queens Quay was opened by the Belfast Central Railway in the 1870s, requiring an awkward reversal at 'Ulster Junction', this service did not last long.

While there was no locomotive depot located at Great Victoria Street itself, there was one located at nearby Adelaide, with locomotives running to and from this location light engine. Apart from long distance services from Belfast to Dublin and Derry, Great Victoria Street also played host to local and suburban services to locations such as Lisburn and Portadown. In 1905 the GNR introduced a shortlived 'railmotor' service between Great Victoria Street and Lisburn, giving rise to platform 1 being known as the 'railmotor platform' long after the service was discontinued. Without the need to shunt at each end of the journey, this was effectively a prelude to modern diesel railcar services. This In 1947 the GNR would commence its famous ‘Enterprise’ express service to Dublin from Great Victoria Street, a name which has carried on to this very day. With the GNR becoming unprofitable, the company was handed over to the control of the Republic and Stormont governments in 1953, being officially known from then as the Great Northern Railway Board, or GNR(B). Despite the introduction of modern diesel railcar units, the GNR’s finances would continue to falter and in 1958 it was dissolved, with its assets being split between CIE in the Republic and the Ulster Transport Authority in Northern Ireland. Thus Great Victoria Street became part of the UTA, with bus facilities added in the early 1960s. Several closures, including that of the “Derry Road” line in 1965, saw Great Victoria Street be reduced to a terminus station for Belfast-Dublin trains and local suburban services along that route. In the same year the Belfast Central Railway route was closed. Contraction would occur, with part of the station being demolished in 1968 to make way for the Europa Hotel, which itself would go on to attain the unenviable title of Europe’s most bombed building during the "Troubles" of the following decades. In 1968 the UTA was dissolved and the station (and the remaining railway network) became part of Northern Ireland Railways.

The 1970s would not bring good fortun to Great Victoria Street station. Numerous bombings occurred in the early 1970s. In 1976 the station was closed by Northern Ireland Railways, along with Queen’s Quay. Instead, Dublin and Bangor services were re-routed to a new terminal station on the former Belfast Central Railway, known as ‘Belfast Central’. However, this would not be the end of Great Victoria Street as a railway terminus, with Belfast Central never quite being as handy for the city centre as its name might suggest.

NIR CAF trains at Belfast Great Victoria Street Station.

The 'new' (1995) Belfast Great Victoria Street Station is seen in June 2023, with a myriad of modern CAF-built diesel railcar sets in attendance. If you compare with the earlier photo, you will see it is slightly further up than the original station, with the 'Boyne Bridge' a handy marker in both. To the right, you will see construction works of the new 'Belfast Grand Central Station', the third incarnation of Great Victoria Street Station. Photo: Táilte Tours Collection

In 1995, a new station would be opened at Great Victoria Street, slightly repositioned from the original, featuring four rail platforms and adjoining bus terminal for long-distance services, the latter known as ‘Europa’. A great deal of operational flexibility was enabled, with a chord of lines meaning that trains could now run directly to/from Great Victoria Street north or south, and it is now a busy station servicing such destinations as Portadown, Derry-Londonderry, Portrush, Larne, and Bangor. At present, Dublin ‘Enterprise’ services continue to use Belfast Central. At the time of writing, Great Victoria Street station has now been reopened longer than it was closed. However, it will soon be facing a second rebirth, with a comprehensive new rail and bus terminal to be opened in the area, known as ‘Belfast Grand Central’. This will result in a larger station, with no less than eight platforms, and a full-time return of Dublin services to Great Victoria Street for the first time since the 1970s. The existing (1995) station is expected to close in late 2024, with the new and improved terminus opening in 2025. For such a relatively small terminus, it sure has had a diverse history, hasn’t it?

Belfast York Road Station (1848)

Belfast York Road Railway Station in August 1963.

Former NCC WT Class 'Jeep' tank engine No.6 on a Derry-bound train at Belfast York Road Railway Station in August 1963, photo by kind courtesy of Roger Joanes. View his wonderful photo collection on Flickr here.

Almost a decade after Great Victoria Street opened, Belfast would see not one, but two more terminus stations open in 1848. The first of these was at York Road, terminus of the Belfast & Ballymena Railway, which opened in April of that year. The building was designed by Charles Lanyon, an architect of much prominence in the Belfast area. locomotive depot was also located here as were workshops. Initial services were to both Ballymena on the mainline and to Carrickfergus on a branch. This network would expand greatly over the following decade or so, with links to Derry and Portrush being made in 1855 via the Ballymena, Ballymoney, Coleraine and Portrush Junction Railway which connected the Belfast & Ballymena Railway to the Londonderry & Coleraine Railway. In 1860 the railway became known as the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway (BNCR), with the Carrickfergus branch being extended through to Larne in 1862. The station was expanded in the mid 1870s and redeveloped further in the 1890s by Berkeley Deane Wise, with a hotel opening in 1898. A tram connection was also added in 1895. A connection to the city's other railway lines was made via the Belfast Harcour Commissioner's tramways, though apart a brief attempt at a feeder service to Donegall Quay, this was principally for freight use rather than passenger.

The Belfast & Northern Counties Railway were quick to see the potential of tourism, and York Road would become host to excursion trains taking passengers to the Glens of Antrim and Portrush, with connections laid on to places such Cushendall. A predecessor to the railtour charters we operate today, the early 20th century saw the enterprising William Holden, proprietor of Larne's Laharna Hotel, actually commissioned his own private charter train to take his guests on a rail tour of Ulster, the first class carriages for which were built at York Road.

In 1903 the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway, became part of the Midland Railway in 1903, bringing York Road and the lines emerging from it under the control of the latter company. This would in turn become part of the London Midland & Scottish Railway in 1923. The former BNCR network was managed by its Northern Counties Committee (NCC) based in Belfast. The LMS era would see plenty of investment in its Irish lines, with York Road being upgraded to colour light signalling in the late 1920s, around a decade before the GSR would do the same in Dublin. Rolling stock also saw considerable investment, with new locomotives and carriages being introduced in the 1930s, with a 'North Atlantic Express' commencing operation between Belfast York Road and Derry in 1934. Tourist traffic also continued to be busy until World War II, though the station would remain busy with troop trains. York Road station and surroundings suffered extensive damage during the 'Blitz' of World War II, such was the damage that the LMS needed to send over re-gauged carriages to replace destroyed rolling stock. The station and hotel were rebuilt although the overall roof was replaced by smaller canopies on the platforms. In 1948 the LMS (and thus, York Road) became part of the newly formed British Railways, having passed to the British Transport Commission. However, it would not stay under BR ownership for long, with its former NCC lines being sold to the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) in 1949. The former network would vastly contracted by the UTA, though York Road with retain its prominence as a terminus for Derry trains, the former NCC route being shorter than the former GNR one via Portadown and Clones. In 1966 the former Belfast Harbour Commissioners tramway was disconnected, isolating York Road from the other Belfast termini. However, York Road Works remained the main engineering centre for what became known as Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) from 1968, and vehicles requiring major work needed to make a long and winding journey via Antrim and Lisburn to reach it from other parts of the network. The station suffered major bombings in the 1970s, as did the other termini. In 1978, Londonderry-Derry trains were diverted to Belfast Central via the former GNR Lisburn-Antrim branch, with York Road remaining as a terminus for Larne line trains.

Enter Yorkgate Station

A NIR service at Yorkgate railway station, Belfast.

Belfast Yorkgate station, June 2023.

In 1992, York Road Station, now very much a shadow of its former self, was closed, with a new station being opened at nearby Yorkgate. This itself would be the terminus for Larne line services until late 1994, when the Cross Harbour Rail link opened, allowing Larne line trains to run through to Belfast Central and later the new Belfast Great Victoria Street station. The reopening of the former NCC Bleach Green-Antrim route in the early 2000s would see Derry and Portrush line trains once again pass through the station also. The original York Road station is now part of the expanded York Roads Works, which continues to maintain and overhaul the NIR fleet. Yorkgate itself is now undergoing an extensive rebuild as part of the York Street station development as part of a £10 million investment by Translink.

Belfast Queens Quay Station

Belfast's Queen Quay station in 1912.

A photo of the rather busy interior of Belfast Queen's Quay station, 1912.

Belfast’s third railway terminus, Queens Quay, opened on 2nd August 1848, in connection with the commencement of operations on the Belfast & County Down Railway’s branch to Holywood (its actual mainline to Newtownards would not open until 1850, the two lines splitting at Ballymacarrett Junction). The initial terminus, which sported a wooden trainshed, was replaced by a permanent structure in 1849. As with Great Victoria Street, Queens Quay was designed by John Godwin. Initially sporting two platforms, in time, Queens Quay would expand to a five-platform station. Unlike the other main railways of the province, the Belfast & County Down Railway did not encroach beyond its titular county boundaries, although it did expand beyond the initial setup of a branch to Holywood and a mainline to Newtownards, the latter eventually reaching as far south as the seaside town of Newcastle under the Mournes, via Saintfield and Downpatrick. The Holywood branch would eventually reach Bangor, an important source of commuter traffic to this day, while other branches would give Queens Quay a connection to places such Ballynahinch, Donaghdee and Ardglass. The BCDR also developed a depot and extensive workshops at Queens Quay.

While it never quite attained the majesty of the express services on the level of those enjoyed by the other Belfast termini, Queens Quay nonetheless was an important commuter terminus. Similar to the GNR, the BCDR were an early adopter of ‘fast turnaround’ commuter trains in the form of railmotor services, a steam locomotive and carriage built as one, which operated between the terminus and Holywood. These were later converted into push-pull sets and one of them, No.2, has been restored to operational condition at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway (read more about it here). Excursion trains also made up a significant portion of traffic from Queens Quay station, with Newcastle of course being a popular holiday destination, one notable such service was the Saturday Only “Golfer’s Express” from Belfast to Newcastle. Once again, another precursor to the railtours of today. Queens Quay also enjoyed a link to Belfast city centre by a tram service, while connection to the other mainline railways was made via a connection to the Belfast Harbour Commissioners tramway (allowing transfer to the BNCR/NCC lines at York Road) and via the Belfast Central Railway which would link it with the GNR system via Maysfield.

The BCDR would retain an independent existence for around a century. In 1948, it became part of the Ulster Transport Authority along with the NCC and NITB. This would bring with it drastic changes to the former BCDR network, with all of its lines bar the Bangor branch being closed by 1951. That being said, Queens Quay would remain open as the terminus for the Bangor commuter services, which became the first line in Britain or Ireland to be completely dieselised from 1954, with the introduction of the UTA’s MED railcar sets. The closure of the former Belfast Central Railway link in 1965 would see Queens Quay (and the Bangor line) isolated from the rest of the rail system. As with the other two Belfast termini, “The Troubles” would not be kind to Queens Quay, with several bombings taking place during the 1970s. The former Belfast Central Railway reopened in 1976, however, this, in turn, spelt the end of Queens Quay station, with its services transferring to the then-new Belfast Central station. The station itself closed on 10th April 1976, however, a new depot, known as “Central Services Depot”, was constructed on the site of its yards, servicing rolling stock for NIR’s Bangor and Dublin line services. This, in turn, would close in 1994, when the Cross Harbour Rail Link and M3 Motorway were built over the site, thus ending a 146-year railway presence on the site.

Belfast Lanyon Place Station (formerly Belfast Central)

An evening Enterprise service waits its departure at Belfast Lanyon Place, formally Belfast Central Station, October 2023.

An evening Enterprise service waits its departure at Belfast Lanyon Place, formally Belfast Central Station, October 2023. Photo: Táilte Tours Collection.

Belfast's next railway terminus would not open for 128 years after the last, with services through Belfast Central station commencing in April 1976 (though a proposal for such a station dated back as long ago as the 1860s). It was constructed as part of the reopening of the old Belfast Central Railway route, on the site of the Maysfield goods yard, and thus enabling through running between the Dublin and Bangor lines. As mentioned, it replaced the stations at Great Victoria Street and Queens Quay, and allowed for through commuter services between Bangor and Portadown. With the opening of the Cross Harbour Rail Link in 1995, would see services on the former NCC routes run to Belfast Central, adding Derry, Portrush and Larne to its range of destinations. It is a four platform station, consisting of island platforms. In addition, there is a former parcels siding.

Its title notwithstanding, Belfast Central was never particularly 'central' to Belfast, and this was reflected in name change in September 2018, when it was officially retitled 'Belfast Lanyon Place'. While most other NIR services use Great Victoria Street, Lanyon Place has remained the terminus for Dublin-Belfast services as of the time of writing (though this will change with the opening of the station at Great Victoria Street, which, as mentioned, is to be known as 'Belfast Grand Central'.

With no less than four major terminal stations in its time, some of them having multiple incarnations, Belfast's railway history is diverse and ever-changing. Much like Northern Ireland itself, its story since the 1990s has been one of hope and rebirth. With exciting plans by Translink Northern Ireland Railways for station developments at both Great Victoria Street and York Street, Belfast's railway story shall continue to evolve.

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