Tracking down lost railways of Ulster

Share this article

THE drumlin hillsides surrounding Downpatrick now lie silent. But 150 years ago they would have echoed to the scream of the steam whistle of the industrial revolution with the arrival of Belfast and County Down Railway (BCDR) into Downpatrick.

The BCDR was incorporated in 1846 during the 'railway mania' of the 1830s and 1840s when it was granted a licence by an act of Parliament. At first the focus of the company lay with lines which served Bangor, Holywood, Comber and Newtownards. Soon the BCDR's attention turned to Downpatrick but the unfortunate outbreak of the Great Famine nearly halted their plans and indeed there was a risk that they might never reach its destination.

In September 1853 a prospectus was published in the News Letter which championed the railway line. In publishing the prospectus the directors of the company hoped to raise capital of 150,000, "to be raised by 6,000 shares of 25 each" with a deposit of 2 10s per share.

"Few places have benefited so little by railway communication as the County of Down," declared the prospectus.

It continued: "This seems the more surprising, when the density of its population, the extent of its manufacturers, and the vast amount of agricultural produce which it yields are taken into account.

"The want of railway communication from Downpatrick, the assizes of this great county, and Belfast, the metropolis of the north, has long been felt. It is now proposed to supply this want, by constructing a railway from Downpatrick via Crossgar and Ballynahinch, to the Ulster line at Lisburn, a distance of 16 Irish miles, thus not only dividing the county in its very centre, but, whilst it gives the passenger from Downpatrick to Belfast as short a route as any other that can be proposed.

"It presents the incalculable advantage of enabling him to reach Dublin or any other intermediate towns without change of carriage, the difference between Downpatrick and Dublin and Belfast and Dublin being, by this route, only nine Irish miles, and, in point of time, a difference of only 20 minutes; besides it would afford an unbroken railway communication between Downpatrick, Armagh and the west of Ireland, by means of the present line and those projected in extension to the Ulster railway."

The focus of those advancing the line was on the bustling administrative centre of Down as a place to make money. They declared: "In Downpatrick there are two courts of assize, four general quarter sessions of the peace, 12 fairs and 104 corn markets, held in the year, besides county and other meetings, calculated to bring considerable passenger traffic from Belfast, Newry, Banbridge, Moira and Lisburn, &c, to the county town."

Concluding their prospectus they boasted: "When this line of railway is opened, the cheapness of labour, as well as moderate rents and taxes, and the facility of procuring coals from Quoile Quay, would be strong inducements to capitalists to erect flax spinning mills and other manufacturers at Downpatrick and Ballynahinch, at the latter place particularly, where water-power exists to a large extent."

When the 1846 act lapsed the BCDR had to reapply for a new one which would allow the line to travel in a westerly direction towards Downpatrick via Comber. The original plan was altered to include the villages of Ballygowan, Saintfield and Crossgar and passed through some difficult terrain which required many rock cuttings, the most notable one between Comber and Ballygowan which became known as "the gullet".

The line to Ballynahinch via Ballynahinch Junction opened on September 10, 1858. The next stop for the line would be Downpatrick, but notably that although enough land was purchased between Comber and Downpatrick to allow a double track to be laid this section of the BCDR network remained single track throughout its life.

And so it was just over 11 years after the idea of an extension line running into Downpatrick that expectations were high for the arrival of the first trains in the town.

But even at this time there remained obstacles to its completion. A month before the opening of the line into Downpatrick the town's local newspaper, the Down Recorder, detailed how the River Quoile, which was one of the biggest obstacles to the completion of the line, was to be crossed by a trestle bridge resting on wooden piles driven into the riverbed.

The paper noted: "Considerable animation is at present going on at this end of the line. The rails will, next week, be laid over the wooden bridge, about a mile-and-a-half from the town. The road has been ballasted to the terminus here. The turntable has been formed and the building of the station is about to be commenced, so that there is every prospect of the extension to this town being opened with the least delay possible."

It had been hoped by the directors of the company that the line would open ahead of the start of the County Down assizes and the lucrative business of the legal profession. But this failed to materialise as one Belfast paper noted on March 22, 1859.

"It was generally hoped and expected that this line would have been opened before the assizes, and, had this expectation been fulfilled, the accommodation of members of the legal profession in Belfast, and all who are compelled to attend the assizes, would have been very great," reported the paper.

It continued: "The government inspector was looked for last Friday with some anxiety, for he had inspected and approved the line on that day, the final authority of the Board of Trade might have been obtained in time to permit the line to be opened through on the first day of the hearing of cases. His official visit has not, however, been yet made, and there is now no possibility of the advantages of railway communication with that town being available at the present important juncture."

The following day came news that extension line had finally been given approval by the inspector and was due to open.

A paper reported: "Yesterday (March 22) the line of the railway between Saintfield and Downpatrick was officially opened, by Captain Tyler, the government surveyor, and pronounced by him to be excellently constructed, and for immediate working. This day (March 23), as will be seen by an advertisement (in the paper), two special trains will leave Belfast for Downpatrick, and during the remainder of the assizes, and a few days the formal certificates of the regular opening of the line will be announced to the public."

While the line was opened with no pomp or ceremony there was much delight in the area about their new railway line.

"It is gratifying to find that this railway is at length opened to the public. The first trip was made from Belfast to this town, on Wednesday morning, in one hour and 10 minutes," declared the Downpatrick Recorder.

"This rate of speed is not to be expected on all occasions. The usual time likely to be taken, between the termini of the two towns, will be about an hour-and-a-half, which will be quite satisfactory to the public."

The cost of travelling by the railway was also the focus of the Recorder's comment. It stated: "We trust the good sense of the directors of this railway will keep the fares at a moderate rate. They will by this means not only add to the comforts of the people, but in our opinion increase the dividends of the company."

As regards to the cost to the general public travelling on the new railway extension the paper reported that "fares to Belfast, for the present. . . first class, single ticket 3s 6d; return ticket, 5s 3d. Second class, 2s 4d; return, 3s 6d. Third class, 1s 6d; return, 2s 3d. The return tickets seem to be on the usual scale of a fare-and- a-half."

The line was extended to Newcastle by the Downpatrick, Dundrum and Newcastle railway which opened, almost 10 years after the first trains ran into Downpatrick, on March 25, 1869. The line would eventually be absorbed by the BCDR on July 14, 1884.

Sadly trains would run into and through Downpatrick for less than a century and they are now very much a part of the past. The line joined dozens of other branch lines across the Province in the 1950s as the Department of Commerce and Production's rationalisation plan which saw the end of the line for many branches. The line eventually closed on January 15, 1950, while the entire track had been lifted by 1953. Downpatrick station carried on as the main bus depot until 1972 when it too was demolished.