Sixty years ago this week the last passenger trains rain on the County Donegal Railways. Its popular knowledge the last public trains bowed out on December 31st 1959, but what is less known is the railway continued solely as a regular freight operation for a further five weeks or so. Which means, like several other narrow gauge systems both in Britain and Ireland, services soldered on longer without passengers. The freight service officially ended 6th February 1960 however its said an impromptu service was provided for a few more months.
Its a difficult task to write about the County Donegal Railways Joint Committee without writing too about the earlier railways which were built and eventually formed part of the CDRJC. In a nutshell that came about because it was decided the narrow gauge and standard gauge systems (some of which were converted to narrow gauge) in north-west Ireland should come under one overall supervising body.
The CDRJC’s acquisitions eventually resulted in a quite substantial narrow gauge railway system consisting of well over 120 miles. This was connected to the Lough Swilly Railway’s network at Letterkenny so there was in fact a total of 235 miles in the entire three foot gauge network – and some have pointed out it was in fact the largest narrow gauge railway network in Europe.
For a narrow gauge railway in this part of Europe, the CDRJC had the longest journeys of all with a couple or so trains a day undertaking the entire journey between Derry and Killybegs, a distance of sixty five miles. Most journeys however were Derry/Strabane to Donegal and then change for either Ballyshannon or Killybegs.
CDRJC timetable for 1955. Source: Twitter.
Despite being a narrow gauge railway the CDRJC was in fact noted for pioneering the use of diesel railcars and locomotives, in fact it was the first railway in the world to use these new forms of motive power. This pioneering work was due to the railway’s famous manager, Henry Forbes, based at Stranorlar.
The first diesel railcars on the line were actually buses bought from the Derwent Valley Railway in Yorkshire during 1929. As related in E.M.Patterson’s book these buses were converted to rail use. The company’s experience with these early diesels certainly made the CDRJC a pioneer railway company because it built the world’s first ever diesel railway locomotive called ‘Progress.’
The bus that became a train! The converted railcar today at the Ulster Transport Museum. Source: Flickr
Henry Forbes was also on the committee of the Clogher Valley Railway and he too encouraged that line to modernise by investing in diesel railcars. When the Clogher Valley closed the CDRJC acquired these railcars. The pioneering diesel locomotive Phoenix also came from the Clogher Valley railway. It had originally started life as a steam tram engine, but wasn’t successful. The CDRJC purchased it and Forbes had it converted to diesel.
Phoenix in its earlier form as a steam tram locomotive. It remained unused in the CVR’s Aughnacloy works for three years until Forbes had it purchased. Source: 16mm Modellers.
The CDRJC system 1958. The Glenties line closed 1947 and Strabane – Victoria Road closed 1954. Source: Twitter. (Note: Account suspended or deleted thus an archived image is used here.)
Derry to Strabane 14 miles (23km); Strabane to Letterkenny 19.25 miles (32km); Strabane to Stranorlar 13.5 miles (22km); Stranlorlar to Glenties 24 miles (39km); Stranorlar to Donegal 18 miles; Donegal Town to Ballyshannon 16 miles (26km); Donegal to Killybegs 19 miles (31km.)
Next: Pics & history of the various lines/stations managed by the CDRJC:
Eske at Strabane in 1948. Source: Facebook
Strabane. Source: Pinterest
Its said Strabane station was the largest railway junction in Ireland. Its correct in terms of the routes offered, however there was just one actual junction! There were lines radiating in five different directions from here – three narrow gauge and two standard gauge. And the one junction for the narrow gauge splitting the lines towards either Derry or Letterkenny.
Customs inspection at Strabane 1958. Source: Twitter
Near the end. No.2 Blanche with a freight at Strabane. August 1959. Source: Twitter
Abandoned CDRJC stock at Strabane, seen 1964. Source: Twitter
Stations from Strabane to Stranorlar were at Clady, Castlefin, Liscooly and Killygordon. For the purposes of this feature just the more important stops westwards to Killybegs are shown.
At this point it must be mentioned the railcars stopped at many places besides stations and halts. These were usually at crossing gates where there was a keeper present. The CDRJC however found many of these stops rather untenable in terms of timetable keeping. In 1944 the committee ordered that an approved list of unofficial stops be used as a means to try and keep its trains to time.
Castlefinn was at the border crossing thus this small station was of considerable importance. Its also where the railway operations were centered in the final few weeks of services after the passenger side of the railway had closed in 1959.
Castlefin station. Source: Castlefin Online
Meenglas at Castlefinn. The table on the right was for customs and invariably all the passenger trains used this platform. Source: Flickr
After official closure, Castlefin was the subject of a photo opportunity on 1st January 1960 with members of the CDRJC’s staff present. Clearly that locomotive had to steam here thus the railway was still operational! Source: Twitter
In Phoenix’s earlier years it was allowed main line duties. This is the celebrated pioneer diesel locomotive at Stranorlar with a train from Strabane. September 1938. Its performance wasn’t that good however, mainly due to a fairly low top speed of 27mph. Thus it got related to Strabane where it spent the rest of its working life as a shunter.
Stranorlar had an extensive works for the maintenance of rolling stock. That for the railcars on the left, locomotives on the right. Picture early 1950s.
Stranorlar station in 1948. Source: Twitter
Railcar 19 at Stranorlar workshops. This was actually a bus converted to rail use! Source: Twitter
From Stranorlar the railway had a considerable climb of just over 500 feet in a distance of about six miles. This ascent took the railway to its summit at Derg bridge, just before Lough Mourne. It then descended nigh on 500 feet again by way of a more leisurely descent in the twelve miles from Lough Mourne to Donegal, with a good part of this section being through the famous Barnesmore Gap.
Stations were at Meenglas, Barnesmore, Lough Eske and Clar Bridge.
Railcar 20 during a special stop by the shores of Lough Mourne. The Barnesmore Gap can be seen in the distance. Source: Flickr
The spectacular gap was essentially a ready made pass through the Blue Stack mountains of Donegal. Both rail and road found it of great use. The railway itself clung to the sides of the hills, considerably higher up than the roadway – and it was quite a spectacle to see the narrow gauge trains making their way through the gap.
Meenglas heading up the Barnesmore Gap with a eleven coach train on a special excursion August 1959. Source: Flickr
Impromptu photo stop in the Barnesmore Gap heading from Donegal towards Stranorlar. August 1959. Source: Flickr
Meenglas with the same excursion seen earlier passing Barnesmore halt heading for Ballyshannon. August 1959. Source: Flickr
Lough Eske – railcar no.12 and a couple of vans heading west. Source: Twitter.
The next station of importance is that at Donegal. The buildings still exist and there’s a heritage centre centering on the former 3 foot gauge network. Many – even the railway itself – knew the station as Donegal Town, probably because it was almost right in the centre of town! But perhaps more so because it was in fact the county town.
Colourful artwork depicting a train at Donegal Town. Source: Twitter
Railcar 12 at Donegal Town in May 1957. Source: Twitter
Railcar 19 at Donegal Town in 1958. Source: Twitter
Unidentified Class 5 at Donegal on an eastbound train. Source: Twitter.
Colour pic of Donegal Town with a 5T present. Source: Twitter.
Night time pics are almost non-existent however this one’s from an early ‘Phoenix.’ Its No5 at Donegal Town.
(The Phoenix was the journal of the South Donegal Railway Preservation Society and first published in 1991. It of course featured many photographs and stories of the CDRJC not featured anywhere else. The Phoenix continues to be published to this day by the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre.)
Meenglas at Donegal Town with only four more months of rail services left. August 1959. Source: Flickr
The line from Donegal to Killybegs is shown in part two. It was an extremely long branch with many features and stations. That wasn’t to be the end of the line however. There were proposals to extend the railway as far as Teelin pier, a strategic location in terms of government facilities, a fishing port and outstanding scenery. It would have been expensive to build as the route was very hilly.
Teelin Pier, once the proposed terminus for the Donegal Railway. Source: Twitter