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The Cavan & Leitrim Railway—65 years closed but by no means dead.

Former Tralee & Dingle locomotive No.5T hauls the last train on the Arigna branch, 31st March 1959.

The last train on the Arigna branch, headed by former Tralee & Dingle Railway locomotive No.5T. Photo: Patrick Lynch, courtesy of the Cavan & Leitrim Railway Museum.

31st March 2024 marks the 65th anniversary of the closure of the former Cavan & Leitrim Railway line from Dromod to Belturbet, along with its branch to Arigna. This marked the closure of the last entirely steam-worked narrow gauge railway in all of Ireland. Indeed, it was the second-last narrow gauge line operated by CIÉ, with the last being the former West Clare Railway, which would last until 1961.

The early years of the Cavan & Leitrim Railway

The line was originally opened in 1887 under the auspices of the Cavan, Leitrim & Roscommon Light Railway & Tramway Company—it would be renamed simply the ‘Cavan & Leitrim Railway’ in 1895 after Roscommon pulled out of the scheme. Cattle was quite a prominent traffic, with much of it being brought to Belturbet where the line interfaced with the Great Northern Railway of Ireland system, allowing the animals to be transported further on. At Dromod, the station located adjacent to that on the Midland Great Western Railway’s line to Sligo. After much campaigning, a branch was constructed to Arigna in 1920, with government support. This branch, much of it a roadside tramway, allowed the railway to bring in coal from the mines at Derreenavogy, a traffic which would go on to play a key role in the railway’s survival beyond the 1920s—the partition of 1922 having an impact on its cattle traffic to what was now Northern Ireland.

Change of ownership, the Great Southern Railways era

In 1925, the Cavan & Leitrim was absorbed into the Great Southern Railways (GSR), along with all other railways that didn’t operate across the border into Northern Ireland, losing much of its autonomy in the process. Heavy repair work on vehicles was now transferred to Inchicore Works in Dublin, and rationalisation would see the demolition of the carriage shed in Ballinamore, which did nothing for the condition of the coaching fleet. That being said, it did receive additional locomotives from other narrow gauge lines under the GSR umbrella, such as some from the Cork Blackrock & Passage Railway and the Tralee & Dingle Railway. The emergence of motor vehicles saw passenger numbers decline throughout the 1930s, as was the case on many lines throughout Ireland and Britain. In 1945, the GSR itself was merged with the Dublin United Tramway Company to become Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ).

The CIÉ era and the end of the Cavan & Leitrim Railway

In the mid-1950s it was announced that a coal-fired power station was to be built on the shores of Lough Allen, a power station that would be fed the entire output of Argina’s mine. This brought into question the viability of keeping the Cavan & Leitrim line open, bearing in the mind that by this stage traffic was otherwise sparse particularly on the "mainline" section between Ballinamore and Belturbet. However, something of a curveball was thrown in 1957 when a new coal contract was secured, with the railway forming part of the supply chain to the cement factories at Drogheda (transhipped to Great Northern Railway wagons at Belturbet) and Castlemungret, Co Limerick (transhipped to CIÉ wagons at Dromod). This had the effect of increasing traffic to the point that an extra locomotive was needed. As such, former Tralee & Dingle Railway locomotive No.6T was overhauled at Inchicore Works and dispatched to the Cavan & Leitrim section in July 1957, having previously seen use on the former West Clare Railway in between its Kerry and Leitrim allocations, possibly the most well-traveled of Irish narrow gauge steam locomotives. 

Notice of closure is given

However, this traffic was not to last, and in January 1959 CIÉ announced the Cavan & Leitrim Railway was to close, citing annual losses of £40,000 and outlining that over £200,000 would be needed to bring the line up to modern standards. In the context of the time, when CIÉ was being pressured to cut losses, and mainline routes such as that to Harcourt Street in Dublin had already closed, it was inevitable that a rural narrow gauge line in a sparsely populated region was not going to see investment. Despite this, carriage 1L had been rebuilt and re-entered traffic only in November 1958, while a locomotive was under repair in Ballinamore Works on the very day the line closed.

A fond farewell and plenty of passengers

Locals filled the trains to the brim on the last day of service on the Cavan & Leitrim Railway, 31st March 1959. Photos: Ernie May, courtesy the David Walsh Collection.

The line was set to close on 31st March. The final days saw a spike in visits as people made the pilgrimage to pay their last respects to the line. The Irish Railway Record Society organised an outing from Dublin on Easter Monday, 30th March, necessitating four carriages and two vans on the 12:20 departure from Dromod that day. Indeed, all the trains over the final days were heavily subscribed. On the final day, Tuesday 31st March, a minimum of two carriages was needed on all passenger services, which were worked at various points by locomotives Nos. 4T, 5T and 6T. Original Cavan & Leitrim locomotive No.4L was in steam but not used. Such was the demand for travel on the final train that it was made up of all serviceable carriage stock; it consisted of locomotives Nos.4T and 5T hauling no less than five carriages and two vans. The service was thronged to capacity and, as is customary for a railway closure, was saluted by a series of track detonators throughout the journey. Before departure from Dromod, a speech was made, with the inevitable commemorations during the journey leading to quite a late arrival in Ballinamore. One ramification of the closure was that the GNR branch from Ballyhaise to Belturbet was closed from April 1st, 1959. Lifting of the line began weeks later, though this prompt start, the line would not be completely lifted until well into the 1960s. 

Oriignal Cavan & Leitrim Railway locomotive No.2 "Kathleen' and carriage No.5 are on display in the Ulster Transport Museum, Cultra. Photo: Darragh Connolly.

The Rebirth of the Cavan & Leitrim Railway

Volunteers of the Cavan & Leitrim Railway museum.

Volunteers of the Cavan & Leitrim Railway Museum pose with their beautifully restored 1905 built steam locomotive "Nancy" outside Dromod shed.

After the last lifting trains ran,  the line would slumber for over 30 years before a group of volunteers arrived in the early 1990s to establish a preservation centre at the former Cavan & Leitrim station in Dromod, the Cavan & Leitrim Railway Museum. Their efforts have seen steam trains return to a section of line between Dromod and Clooncolry level crossing. Happily, many of the original railway building survived at Dromod, including the station building, engine shed and water tower. Meanwhile No.3 “Lady Edith” is preserved across the Atlantic at the New Jersey Museum of Transportation. In addition, former Tralee & Dingle locomotive No.5T, which operated on the line’s last day of service, is preserved and currently stored at Blennerville Co Kerry. Two of the line’s original locomotives survive, No.2 “Kathleen” is preserved, along with carriage No.5, in the Ulster Transport Museum at Cultra. The underframe of carriage No.7 also survives and is in use at the Stradbally Woodland Railway, having had a new body constructed. Belturbet station is now operated as a museum in its own right, you can find more about it here.

Darragh Connolly, Director at the Cavan & Leitrim Railway Museum and Irish narrow gauge railway historian, remarks: “The Cavan and Leitrim railway was once considered dead. When closed in 1959 all the railway lines, much of the rolling stock, and locos were all consigned to the scrap heap. Thanks to this group of volunteers a small part of the railway has come back from the dead. Sleeper by sleeper, rail by rail our determined team has re-established narrow gauge rail here in northwest Ireland for the public to visit and experience”.

You can find out more about the Cavan & Leitrim Railway Museum on their website. In addition, we have a special badge available depicting one of their original locomotives, all profits from which will go towards the museum’s Vintage Train Project—a very exciting plan indeed. Get yours here.

Our special Cavan & Leitrim Railway locomotive badge.

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