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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