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More Historic Irish Excursion and Tourist Trains

Updated: Feb 27

Our previous article, A look at Historic Irish Tourist & Excursion Trains, proved to be very popular, generating lots of lovely feedback and memories from those who travelled on some of them long ago. Of course, it only covered some of the excursion trains operated onby Irish railways over their history; for this month’s article we thought we’d follow on and take a look at some more of Ireland’s historic excursion trains, predecessors of the Irish railtours we operate today.

The Golfers Express

The Belfast & County Down Railway owned the Slieve Donard hotel in Newcastle, and operated connecting excursion trains.

The Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle was originally opened by the Belfast & County Down Railway.

The Golfers Express was a steam-hauled express excursion train which took golfers from Belfast to the Down Royal Golf Course at the seaside resort of Newcastle. It was operated by the Belfast & County Down Railway (BCDR), which was no stranger to the leisure travel market, also offering tours by rail, horse drawn car, boat and even bike (over a century before the advent of greenways). It started in 1892, the same year that the BCDR opened the Slieve Donard hotel, which is still operating today under Marine & Lawn. Newcastle station (which is now a Lidl) had a dedicated entrance for the hotel and golf course. Operating on Saturdays, the Golfers Express was the only non-stop service on the whole of the BCDR system, covering the journey from Belfast in about an hour. Known locomotives used on this train included the BCDR's delightful little 2-4-0 tender engines. One carriage used on this service was Royal Saloon No.153, which was specially reserved for members. This carriage survives today and can be seen at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway museum where it is displayed in their carriage gallery. 

The Hills of Donegal Excursion Train

The “Hills of Donegal” excursion was a collaboration between the Great Northern Railway of Ireland and the County Donegal Railways Joint Committee (of which the GNR had a stake in). Unusually for Ireland, it involved trains of different gauges. Excursion trains would be run by the GNR from Belfast through to Strabane, where passengers would change to the narrow gauge County Donegal system (the two companies having a shared station here). This special brought them to Donegal town (now home to our friends in the County Donegal Railway Museum) where lunch was taken, before conveying them onto Ballyshannon where they would transfer (on foot) to the separate GNR station. Such was the distance between the two stations in Ballyshannon, a member of staff had to guide the passengers through the town. Motive power varied, sometimes the narrow gauge portion was worked by pairs of County Donegal Railway diesel railcars while on other it necessitated one of their big tank engines hauling long trains of carriages (10+ not being unheard of). Similar train excursions were operated by the GNR from Dublin to the county where they connected with a bus tour.

Train excursions to Bangor

Ex-Great Northern Railway (Ireland) UG class 0-6-0 No.49 brings a Bangor bound excursion train past Belfast Central Junction on 13th July 1965.

Ex-Great Northern Railway (Ireland) UG class 0-6-0 No.49 brings a Bangor-bound excursion train past Belfast Central Junction on 13th July 1965. Photo kindly provided by Roger Joanes. Check out his wonderful photo gallery here.

Into the 1960s, Bangor, Co Down, was a popular destination for excursion trains from not just Belfast, but other parts of the railway system (including the Republic). The Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) regularly operated Saturday excursion trains from Lisburn and Portadown on the former GNR mainline through to Bangor on the former Belfast & County Down Railway system. While through Portadown-Bangor suburban trains are normal today, back then they were normally worked independent of each other. These traversed the former Belfast Central Railway system to get from the former GNR line to that of the BCDR. Motive power was often former GNR U and UG class steam engines, with Nos.48 and 49 of the latter class being common towards the end. Weight restrictions over the ‘shaky bridge’ on the central link through Belfast meant that larger locomotives could not be used on these excursion trains. Bangor also saw excursion trains from parts of the CIÉ system, an example being the “Radio Trains” we discussed in our previous blog, these resulting in the visit of GM B141 class diesels to the branch. Jacobs’ Biscuits also chartered excursion trains to the County Down resort from Dublin, bringing A Class diesels to Bangor. Bangor itself was also a starting point for excursion trains; during the 1960s Thursday specials ran from Bangor direct to Dublin, sometimes worked by AEC railcar sets as well as more traditional steam trains. Excursion trains to and from Bangor ended with the closure of the former Belfast Central lines in 1965, essentially isolating the branch from the rest of the railway system until their reopening a decade later.

Fenit Excursion Trains

The former Waterford, Limerick & Western Railway line from Tralee to Fenit lost its passenger service in the 1930s. However, it did see a reprieve of sorts, when a series of summer Sunday excursions operated from Tralee to Fenit commencing with the 1959 season. These proved popular, with scores of day trippers making the journey up to the north end of Tralee bay. These operated throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, after which the excursions and the line itself fell by the wayside. Both locomotive hauled trains and AEC railcar sets are known to have worked these excursions. Some Fenit excursions actually started on another long lost Kerry branchline, that to Castleisland. Although the line to Fenit is now lifted (despite an attempt by the Great Southern Railway Preservation Society to preserve it in the 1980s), you can still explore it as it has been converted into greenway which you can follow from Tralee station.

Once again, this is just a selection of the many, many tourist and excursion train services that have operated throughout Irish railway history. There are even more we haven’t covered, and we hope we look at some of these in another article in the future. In the meantime, we hope you enjoyed this piece and if you do have any memories of these (or other) excursion trains do let us know in the comments.

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