The History of the Decline of Irish Rail Networks

by Ellen Duggan

I’m afraid before I introduce you to the tragic history of the decline of the once-glorious Irish rail network, I must confess a bias. Not only a bias towards the train as a means of transport (as any student can tell you, it is much easier to write an essay on a train than a bus) but a bias instilled in me from an early age by my father.

On many occasions, driving the backroads of Tipperary, he has gazed at the road ahead of him and mournfully stated that were he in government, the first thing he would do is bring back the trains. My sympathy for his nostalgia is somewhat tempered by the fact that our nearest train station, Laffansbridge, ceased operating before he was born, rendering his wistfulness for a bygone era somewhat dramatic, but on the whole, I find myself agreeing with him.

Our current rail system is generally based around services between major urban centres, with pauses at smaller stations on the same line. It is so poorly connected that a rail journey from Waterford to Wexford, a journey which takes an hour by car, takes six hours by rail. Once upon a time, the vast majority of towns in rural Ireland had their own train station that connected them to local areas and, allegedly, in the North almost everyone lived within five minutes of a railway station.

For those living in areas not served by a rail network, the available public transport is often inadequate for the needs of those in the community. Public transport providing access to train stations tends to coincide poorly with the train’s timetable due to a lack of integration between train and bus timetables. Donegal has notoriously been left without rail services since 1959, a cause of much concern for those living in or attending college in the county. As a friend of mine once declared, “One hundred years ago my great granny’s American communist artist suitor could get a train to Donegal and I can’t.” 

“Once upon a time, the vast majority of towns in rural Ireland had their own train station that connected them to local areas”.

The history of the Irish rail network is well-documented, with societies such as the Irish Railway Archive and museums scattered throughout the country dedicated to preserving the memory of the golden age of Irish transport. In 1834, the first railway in Ireland opened, stretching from Westland Row to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire). By 1860, several small rail companies popped up across the country. An Act introduced by Arthur Balfor, then Chief Secretary of Ireland, in the early 1890s provided State assistance for the construction of so-called ‘Balfour Lines’- mostly light railways in rural areas in Ireland. This Act led to the vast majority of the country being connected by rail.

After Partition, most lines in the south of the country were amalgamated from smaller, separate companies into the Great Southern Railways company in 1925. It was around this time that the decline began. The Civil War took a heavy toll on railways in the Irish Free State. Furthermore, the effects of World War II led to an inadequate supply of coal. With the deteriorating quality and infrequency of service discouraging passengers, many lines were closed, citing lack of use. In 1945, Great Southern Railways was dissolved and its assets were transferred to Coras Iompair Eireann. Which, unfortunately, experienced major losses over its first decade in business, and these struggles alongside a Northern Irish government pushing anti-rail policies vehemently led to the dissolution of train services in the North West of the island.

“By 1860 a host of small rail companies had popped up across the country, and the railway spanned 2,170km”.

During the 1950s, lines that were entirely in the north were transferred to the Ulster Transport Authority, lines in the south were transferred to the CIE and almost all cross-border lines were closed. Transport Acts passed in 1958 and 1964 in the Republic of Ireland led to the closure of the majority of rural lines. Further line closures occurred in the seventies, marking the beginning of a period to last until the 1980s, in which the only major development in rail services was the creation of the DART. The CIE was heavily in debt by the late eighties, and, following recommendations to increase focus on bus services, another Transport Act in 1986 meant the CIE was split into Iarnrod Eireann, Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus. Since then rural transport initiatives have focused on bus routes, and the development of the Rural Transport Programme in 2007 saw the eventual establishment of 18 Local Link areas.

As a teenager who couldn’t drive in rural Tipperary, the little white bus driving through my village was the ultimate symbol of freedom. But if the government truly wants to commit to a 51% reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050,then buses are not the best way to go about it. A 2019 study by the UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy shows that travelling by rail is the best option for the environment over moderate-to-long distances. In 2018, transport accounted for 25% of EU greenhouse gas emissions. Rail contributed only 0.4% of this, with emissions by diesel trains only. 127 million regional bus journeys, excluding the vast amount of city services, were taken across the island of Ireland in 2019, with only 65 million rail journeys made in comparison. Furthermore, the distance travelled by car has increased within the past decade. If our leaders truly want to commit to the National Development Plan, which professes aims of enhancing regional accessibility and commitment to sustainable mobility, then the train is the best route to take.

Furthermore, if we consider the North West region, where the tourist industry supports more than 29,000 jobs and welcomes nearly 300,000 visitors from overseas annually (as well as hundreds of thousands of domestic tourists). The fact that such an expansive region is forced to depend on either car or unreliable bus service for transport is surely unappealing to prospective visitors, as well as those from the area. Chloe McBrearty, a first-year psychology student from Donegal, told me that most young people are forced to drive rather than take the bus, citing the comparative length of journeys and the inconvenient scheduling of routes. Even if the prospect of driving is at odds with concerns for the environmental damage caused by the use of diesel and petrol cars, the benefits of driving so far outweigh the discomfort of a long bus journey to Dublin that a car is an obvious option. Studies on the social consequences of rail closures in the UK indicate the contribution of these closures to rural depopulation, and marked reductions in travel to the areas previously served. While a similar study has not been done in Ireland, when railways were introduced into rural areas in the nineteenth century, they provided a lifeline for isolated farming communities to nearby towns as well as major cities. 

“if the government truly wants to commit to a 51% reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050, then buses are not the best way to go about it”

So what kind of rail network do we have today? Ongoing projects set to be completed between 2023 and 2027 include additions to the intercity fleet, expansion of rail infrastructure in the Cork metropolitan area and the proposed MetroLink. The MetroLink will be particularly important as the alignment will link Dublin Airport, Irish Rail, DART, Dublin Bus and Luas services, as well as connecting key destinations. As for the abandoned tracks, nobody is quite sure what is going to happen to them. In 2010, the Great Western Greenway was built upon the Westport to Achill line, a 44 km cycling and walking trail on the Wild Atlantic Way. The Greenway was a huge success and was voted the top three cycle trails in the world by the New York Times. It has stimulated growth, particularly in the hospitality and tourism industries, bringing in over 250,000 visitors annually, as well as providing a valuable local amenity. Its success has inspired the creation of more Greenways across the country, perhaps most notably the Waterford Greenway, which opened in 2017 and is similarly located on a disused line. In 2023, €63 million will be allocated to the further development of Greenways, with Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan confirming the development of cycling and walking infrastructure being key to sustainable tourism and strengthening rural communities.

Despite the accomplishments of Greenways in the regions in which they have been implemented, many are dissatisfied with the fact that with the majority of rail infrastructure still intact, there has not been more investment in making use of the abandoned tracks to improve rural rail services. The All Ireland Strategic Rail Review was commissioned in 2021 by both governments of Ireland, with British engineering firm Arup undertaking the review. Minister Ryan and Nicola Mallon, previous Minister for Infrastructure of Northern Ireland, claim the review will consider how the rail network on the island can improve to promote sustainable connectivity in major urban centres, improve regional accessibility and support regional development. The draft of the review is currently being finalised, but Minister Ryan has implied that it will not be published until the restoration of the assembly. A recent article in the Journal claims that the review will recommend the reopening of some regional lines, with some updates to infrastructure. Among those mentioned are the West and South West Lines, which previously were set to be converted into Greenways. 

After many years, it’s possible that the decline of the great Irish railroad has reached an end, and that we are about to see an improvement in rail services offered on the island. It may be that my father gets his dream after all.

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