Northern Ireland news

Seventy years since Stormont shut down rail network because trains were as `obsolete as the stage coach'

The Belfast train leaving Downpatrick on June 6, 1949
Marie Louise McConville

In 1950 Stormont ministers closed a large part of Northern Ireland's railway network in favour of investing in roads. Seventy years on a Co Down heritage railway is hoping to re-ignite memories from the era of what was considered the golden age of rail travel. Marie Louise McConville reports.

ON January 15, 1950, the first part of Northern Ireland's railway network came to an end with the axe falling on a large part of the old Belfast and County Down Railway (BCDR), marking the end of 100 years of railway transport in east Down.

Having viewed railways as being as a thing of the past and too costly, the government decided to shut down stations south of Comber, resulting in a once key transport corridor falling silent.

The decision meant that no longer would trains and their passenger-filled carriages, on their way to Castlewellan or Newcastle, call at Ballygowan, Saintfield, Ballynahinch junction, Crossgar, or Dundrum , or branch off after Downpatrick for Ardglass.

Later that year services from Belfast to Comber also ceased.

Stormont ministers had taken the decisions in the belief that it would be cheaper to move everything to the roads rather than invest in railways.

Robert Gardiner, chairman of the Downpatrick and County Down Railway, a heritage railway set up on the former Downpatrick Belfast and County Down Railway (BCDR) terminus, said: "It seems incredible today to think that such a vital transport link could be easily discarded, but in 1950 the ministers in the devolved Stormont government took the view that railways were as obsolete as the stagecoach.

"In a way, they were right that the lines were Edwardian relics and the BCDR in particular still operated obsolete Victorian carriages but investment since then in new technologies in track, signalling and rolling stock over those years have showed what we could have had throughout Northern Ireland," he said.

In 1948, the Stormont government decided to nationalise the network and amalgamate the network providers with the bus operator, the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board, to form the Ulster Transport Authority, a predecessor to Translink.

Mr Gardiner said a tribunal was set up to "consider how this could be best achieved and provide an integrated transport system".

"Rail chiefs, who had been hoping for investment after the railways had proved so crucial to the war effort a few years earlier and that the buses would be barred from competing with the trains and instead provide a feeder service to

stations, were devastated at the outcome," he said.

"The recommendation, accepted by Stormont, was that the entire Belfast and County Down Railway main line from Belfast to Newcastle, including the branches to Donaghadee, Ballynahinch and Ardglass, should be closed. The only route to be saved was the Belfast to Bangor connection...".

"The attitude of Stormont was that it would be cheaper to move everything to the roads than to invest in railways that had been run down during the Second World War. People would use the buses instead. They developed huge road building schemes most were never completed but closed the railways first before these were even started."

The 1950 closures were the first steps in a plan which was to see the reduction of the Northern Ireland's railway network from 754 miles to 297 miles, a decrease of 61 per cent.

Seventy years on and to mark the demise of the BCDR, the Downpatrick & County Down Railway is keen to make contact with anyone who had any connection with the network, including former employees or their families, or people in possession of railway memorabilia such as photographs, tickets, timetables or even carriages.

Mr Gardiner said they were particularly keen to track down a BCDR uniform or tunic.

"So far, we have been unable to track one down," he said.

"Perhaps you have something in your loft?"

Anyone with information or who can help can contact DCDR by email at info@downrail.co.uk or message at www.facebook.com/downrail

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