Irish Railway Record Society


Passengers on the GNR(I) main line between Dublin and Belfast are given a great view of the countryside when crossing the Craigmore Viaduct, just north of Newry station, formerly known as Bessbrook.  At the Dublin end, they can also see an attractive rural footpath snaking its way far beneath.

This is the trackbed of the Bessbrook & Newry Tramway which was built to convey passenger and goods, mainly from the Bessbrook Mill, to Newry, a distance of some three miles.

Despite having one terminus in a large and easily accessible centre of population, this pioneering electric line, which opened on 1 October 1885 and survived until 1948, was little known, even to railway enthusiasts, and seldom visited and photographed.  One of those who did travel over it was our member Henry Beaumont, who has contributed a brief memoir and some photographs, not previously published.

The tramway was 30 gauge and had a number of unusual features.  The single track was made up of no fewer than five rails.  In addition to the normal running rails for the flanged wheels of railway rolling stock, there were two additional rails which were located outside the running rails and set at a slightly lower level.  These served to support the goods vans and wagons, the wheels of which were flangeless and were guided by the outer sides of the running rails in the manner of a plateway.  The wheelset at one end of these goods vehicles was mounted on a pivot arrangement, so that the vans and wagons could function as road vehicles in the GNR(I) goods yard at Newry and around the mill premises at Bessbrook.  Surprisingly, photographs show a van of this kind marshalled between a motor car and a passenger trailer.

The array of rails was completed by a centre live rail formed from a steel channel section mounted on insulators and supplied at a nominal 245 v DC, but this rail was interrupted across the lengthy level crossing at Millvale, where power was supplied by a catenary-hung overhead line, for which the electric power cars were equipped with a rudimentary but effective overhead current collector as well as shoes for the third rail.

The motor cars were single-ended and turning circles were provided at Newry and Bessbrook, the only such arrangement on any Irish electric tramway.  Henry Beaumont recalls that the seating was longitudinal and that the speed of the trams was very slow approximating during his visit to a brisk walking pace.

In the Summer of 1947, the fledgling Irish Railway Record Society organised an outing to the B&NT, but sadly, only a few months later, this remarkable link with the early days of electric traction, only the third electric line to have opened in the United Kingdom, saw its last train on Saturday, 10 January 1948, just over 60 years ago.  However, with a remarkable degree of foresight, the builders in 1885 of Motor No. 2, Mather & Platt, re-purchased the car, and after a further series of moves, it can be seen today in the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum at Cultra.

The line is described in Oakwood Locomotion Papers No. 115 by the late Alan T. Newham.  The booklet contains an interesting selection of pictures by H. Fayle and W.A. Camwell, among others.

The remainder of this article appears in IRRS Journal number 165, published February 2008.

Copyright 2008 by Irish Railway Record Society Limited
Revised: March 29, 2008 .