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The History of Irish Railways


Hibernia was the first locomotive in public service on an Irish railway in 1834.



Irish railway history begins in December 1834, when the island’s first railway, the Dublin & Kingstown opened, with the first public train hauled by the steam locomotive “Hibernia”, operating from Westland Row (now the site of Pearse Station) and Kingstown (now known as Dun Laoghaire). This followed a pre-opening train hauled by another loco, "Vauxhall" a few days earlier. The Dublin & Drogheda Railway would follow in the 1840s, along with the Ulster Railway from Belfast to Portadown, the Great Southern & Western from Dublin to Carlow (and, ultimately, Cork), and the Midland Great Western to Enfield (and ultimately Galway), with railway mania spreading throughout the 1850s. By the end of the 19th century, a vast network operated by several different companies spread from Portrush on the north coast all the way down to Baltimore in the very south. 1906 saw the completion of the Rosslare to Waterford line, the last of the through ‘mainline’ railways to open although some short spurs would open in the 1920s to serve industrial locations. The latter decades had also seen the establishment of several 3ft narrow gauge lines serving areas along Ireland’s Atlantic coast less suited to standard gauge lines. 

The Mergers and Struggles of the Irish Railways in the 20th Century

After burgeoning growth in the 19th century, the first half of the 20th century was to be a turbulent one in Irish railway history. By the early 1920s, the worsening financial state of the main operating companies out of Dublin led to their merger into the Great Southern Railway in 1924, initially formed by the bringing together of the Great Southern & Western Railway, the Midland Great Western Railway, and Cork, Bandon & South Coast Railway. 1925, the Dublin & South Eastern Railway and all narrow gauge lines located entirely within what was by then the Irish Free State were added, with the company being retitled the Great Southern Railways (plural). The narrow gauge lines absorbed into the GSR consisted of the Cork & Muskerry Light Railway, the Cavan & Leitrim Railway, the Cork, Blackrock & Passage Railway, the Tralee & Dingle Railway and the West Clare Railway. Lines that straddled the border into Northern Ireland, such as the Great Northern Railway, Sligo, Leitrim & Northern Counties Railway, the Dundalk, Newry & Greenore Railway, the Clogher Valley Railway, Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway and  County Donegal Railways Joint Committee, were left to remain independent, as where lines whole contained in Northern Ireland (principally the Belfast & County Down Railway and the London Midland & Scottish Railway Northern Counties Committee, which operated the lines to Larne, Derry via Coleraine, along with several branch lines. 

The “Emergency” period during World War II took its toll on the GSR in particular, with rations on fuel meaning the company had to resort to less than satisfactory fuel sources such as turf and oil. The crippling financial situation led to it being merged with the Dublin United Tramways Company in 1945 to form Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ), the Irish Transport Company, under the Transport Act 1944. CIÉ would go on to be nationalised in 1950. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, 1948 saw the Belfast & County Down Railway merged with the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board to form the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA). They would be joined by the former Northern Counties Committee network in 1949, after the LMS had been nationalised and merged to from British Railways. While all this was going on, an extensive industrial railway system was being developed by Bord na Móna (the Irish Turf Board) which would go on to become Europe’s largest industrial railway. 

By the early 1950s, the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) was having its own financial struggles and nationalised by both governments in 1953, being managed by the Great Northern Railway Board, or GNR(B). This would not change its fortunes, and this was in turn disbanded in 1958 with its assets and routes being split between CIÉ and the UTA. The 1950s also saw a rapid change with the mass introduction of diesel traction on the CIÉ, GNR, and parts of the UTA system, in fact, the Belfast to Bangor line became the first railway line in either Britain or Ireland to be completely dieselised. CIÉ had introduced a small number of diesel shunters and two mainline diesels in 1947/48. However, it was not until the arrival of the AEC railcars in 1953 and A class diesel locomotives in 1955 that major inroads would be made towards replacing the steam fleet.

Network Closures and the End of Steam Trains in Ireland

The second half of the 20th century was perhaps the most devastating period in Irish railway history. CIÉ was facing its own financial troubles, and the late 1950s saw Todd Andrews appointed to reduce operating costs. This led to many closures, such as that of the Harcourt Street to Shanganagh Junction line, and the West Cork system, among others. The last narrow gauge line closed in 1961, that being the former West Clare Railway. Things were grim in Northern Ireland too, with the Benson report leading to the closure of the former “Derry Road”, a winding route from Portadown to Derry, along with branches to locations such as Warrenpoint and Bundoran. The former Belfast & County Down Railway network had been pruned a decade earlier, with only the Belfast to Bangor line remaining. The early 1960s also saw the introduction of the first General Motors diesels, with the 121 class arriving in 1960. The GMs would allow CIÉ to finally remove steam trains from their network entirely, their last operation being an all-Ireland railtour in 1964. Steam would carry on the UTA system, eeking out into the late 1960s, with some former NCC tank engines getting a stay of executive on a spoil train contract to build the M2 motorway until 1970. The railway services of the former UTA became part of Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) in 1967.

Much contraction of the island’s rail network had taken place throughout the 1950s and 60s, and while not as drastic, a few more lines would close over the 1970s, such as the former ‘Burma Road’ from Sligo to Claremorris and the Loughrea branchline from Attymon in Co Galway. Several stations also lost their services in this period. Moving into the 1980s, Dublin’s DART service opened in July 1984, with German-built electric multiple-unit trains operating a frequent service between Bray and Howth. While new mk3 carriages started to appear on the mainlines out of Heuston Station, it would be the 1990s before significant upgrades would take place to the network. In 1987, CIÉ split its services into three operating companies, with the rail (and road freight) network becoming Iarnród Éireann/Irish Rail. The mid-1990s would see the beginnings of a major transformation of the network, with new diesel railcars from Japan (and later Spain) allowing an expansion of Dublin suburban services to include the western lines to Maynooth and Kildare. On the Northern Ireland Railways network, funding had enabled the creation of a new Cross Harbour rail link across Belfast uniting the Larne line with the Dublin and Bangor routes, while a new station was opened at Great Victoria St after the previous one had closed two decades prior. The “Enterprise” express service from Dublin to Belfast underwent a major upgrade in 1996, thanks to EU funding. 

The Revival and Renewal of Irish Railways











The 2000s saw the biggest network renewal of Irish railway history, here we see works being undertaken at Enniscorthy station in March 2006.


By the end of the 1990s, a huge programme of replacing track across the network commenced, with all the mainlines out of Dublin relaid with Continuous Welded Rail and concrete sleepers by the mid-2000s, followed by the installation of Mini-CTC colour light signalling on routes which had up til then largely been using mechanical semaphore signalling (the Cork line had been upgraded in the 1970/80s and that to Belfast in the 1990s). However, the Northern Ireland Railways network, which had merged with Ulsterbus to become Translink in 1995, was still severely underfunded. The “Save our Railways” campaign in the early 2000s was instrumental in securing the future of its network, and it too would see new trains delivered to replace its aging railcar fleet, with major relay works being undertaken on the Bangor, Larne, and Derry lines. Meanwhile in Dublin, the former Harcourt Street line was reopened as far as Stillorgan as part of the Luas tram system in 2004 (with some of the old alignment between Carrickmines and Tully crossing following at the end of the decade). The late 2000s would see Iarnród Éireann undergo the biggest change in traction since the steam-diesel transition 50 years later, with the gradual replacement of locomotive-hauled passenger trains by diesel railcar sets, commencing with the Dublin-Rosslare service in 2004. This was greatly bolstered by the arrival of the 22000 class InterCity Railcar (ICR) fleet from 2007 on. The 2000s also saw the network expand for the first time in decades, with the lines from Glounthane to Midleton, Clonsilla to M3 Parkway, and Ennis to Athenry reopening to passengers, although the Rosslare Strand to Waterford route would close in 2010. The 2010s would be an era of passenger and service growth with further reopenings on the agenda to locations such as Navan and Foynes. Major investment plans are on the horizon for the Northern Ireland Railways network too. The future for Ireland’s railways once again looks bright.

A modern 22000 class InterCity Railcar set, these trains transformed Irish railway operations in the 21st century.

This is but a quick overview of the history of Ireland's railways. For more information, we highly recommend visiting our friends in the Irish Railway Record Society who hold extensive archives and publish regular journal articles on the subject of Irish railway history.

You may also be interested in checking out our blog articles which contains various articles on Irish railway history, along with some of the railtours we have operated to historic Irish railway locations.

Hibernia, the first steam locomotive to haul a public train in Ireland.
Enniscorthy railway station during platform extension works, March 2006.
Modern Irish InterCity railcar set at Portlaoise station.
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