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Journal 190 

Closure of the County Donegal Railways’ Rail System

RICHARD MAUND

  It is well recorded that the remaining CDRJC rail system closed for railborne passenger and goods traffic with effect from Friday 1 January 1960. This previous May, when the Committee so advised the Donegal County Council (presaging the formal notice which appeared in the Belfast Gazette of 19 June 1959 [i]), although the intended implementation date was postponed [ii]. A full report of an interview with Manager & Secretary, Bernard L Curran, setting out the reasons for the closure, appeared in People’s Press of 2 January 1960 and similarly in other local papers. It was not unusual for closures - and sometimes service changes - to be introduced mid-week, on the first of the month, and the local papers duly recorded the running of the last passenger trains on New Year’s Eve, when the CDRJC’s working timetable No. 105 [iii] expired. Among those specifically noted by the Donegal Democrat’s reporter [iv] as having visited the system in its last days was “Mr Lancelot King from Middlesex” – subject of the obituary in Journal No. 189. What is not so clear-cut is what happened in the few weeks after that, for contemporary enthusiast magazines [v] and subsequently published histories [vi] present slightly confusing and contradictory stories.

The last passenger trains - all railcars - on 31 December 1959 should have been:

Down

14:20 Strabane – Killybegs (arr 18:23)

18:10 Donegal – Ballyshannon (arr 19:10)

18:15 Strabane – Stranorlar (arr 18:57)

18:05 Strabane – Letterkenny (arr 19:05)

Up

16:00 Ballyshannon – Donegal (arr 16:58)

16:05 Killybegs – Strabane (arr 18:59)

18:00 Letterkenny – Strabane (arr 18:58)

However, the 16:05 Killybegs (railcar 12) was terminated at Stranorlar and a five-coach replacement – hauled by Drumboe – was provided thence to Strabane. It returned (at 19:32) as a special extra to Stranorlar with James (Jim) and Francis (Frank) McMenamin on the footplate and Michael McArdle Jnr as guard [vii]. This, the last passenger train movement on the system, was met, at 20:21 [viii] or 20:22 [ix] or “about 20:30” [x] (depending on whom you read!), by a crowd including Bernard Curran.

Railcar 18, after working the 16:00 Ballyshannon and 18:10 Donegal – the last revenue trains on that branch – returned light to Donegal [xi] (although another report [xii] appeared to imply that it stayed at Ballyshannon). It is not recorded when 18 and the railcar which finished its day at Killybegs were returned to Stranorlar. The railcar arriving at Letterkenny returned empty to Strabane at 19:35 the same evening [xiii].

From 1 January 1960, all traffic – passenger and goods – was transferred to road operations, integrated (so far as buses were concerned) with CIÉ services. To maintain its links with Strabane, CDRJC vehicles needed to cross the River Finn and the only “approved” road (i.e. with customs’ posts) across the border was the county bridge between Lifford and Strabane (the river here had become the Foyle). This, however, was quite unfit for buses and lorries, and, despite the prior notice given, the counties had done nothing about up-grading it (indeed, in December 1959 and again the following March, they were suggesting asking the railway for the use of their bridge) so the Joint Committee converted the Strabane & Letterkenny Railway’s bridge for use by their own road vehicles – Derry Journal [xiv] carried a photo of workers removing the track of the Strabane – Lifford section. While this work was going on, passengers were taken to either side of the county bridge (by CDRJC on the Lifford side and UTA on the Tyrone side) and had to walk across. Various dates have been quoted for the start of bus services but the Strabane Weekly News [xv] reported that it opened for buses (but not yet for lorries) on Thursday 28 January – the People’s Press of 20 February carries the well-known photo of hired CIÉ bus ZJ5954 crossing the converted bridge.

Goods traffic needed to make the same crossing to and from Tyrone. Journal No. 26 (“During this period goods traffic from Letterkenny for Strabane was being brought by lorry to railhead at Stranorlar, whence a goods train worked to Strabane.”) would lead one to think that only traffic off the S&L line was involved but, in fact, traffic between the whole of the Donegal system and Strabane – including that interchanged with the Great Northern – was involved until the bridge had been converted: hence the continuance of regular goods rail services over the Stranorlar – Strabane section. The date lorries first used the converted bridge seems not to have been recorded, but the local paper [xvi] did report that “the last official freight train … between Strabane and Stranorlar ran on Saturday and pending the lifting of the line only an occasional freight train will run between the two towns.” So there we have the date of the last regular goods “shuttle” - Saturday 6 February 1960 (which would usually be cited as “closed with effect from 8 February 1960”). In this respect, the Journal had the correct date!

As an exception, traffic interchanged with CIÉ via Sligo was transhipped – from road vehicle to road vehicle – at Ballyshannon (this was, of course, still the era of goods road service licensing which prescribed the routes over which operators could ply). A CIÉ employee was unguarded enough to say to the Donegal Democrat’s reporter [xvii]: “It does not make sense to me that we will carry goods from Sligo railhead to Ballyshannon and transfer them to another company’s lorries there.”

The suggestion has been raised that a revenue (as opposed to rolling stock clearance) train ran on the Ballyshannon branch a week later but it is difficult to understand why that would have been so – indeed, the Ballyshannon paper, the Donegal Democrat, had reported, as long ago as their 4 December 1959 issue: “When a consignment of coal is puffed into the Ballyshannon terminus this week-end, it will be the last time that the countryside will reverberate to the familiar clank-clank … will have seen its last steam train.” – although perhaps that should not be read literally as the end of all rail goods traffic at Ballyshannon! Because of the need to quickly sever the line to improve the Ballyshannon – Rossnowlagh road, the same paper’s 1 January edition reported that “… in a few days from now workmen … [will] pour hundreds of tons of stone and rubble … at Coonan’s bridge, [when] this section of the track will disappear for all time.”

IRN Vol. 6 No. 3 (July 1960) later reported that “… on March 18 a special railcar train - comprising railcar 14, trailer 3 and railcar 12 - ran from Stranorlar to Killygordon for recording purposes.” – but it is not clear what form of “recording” took place. Other movements would have been made to position stock at Strabane for sale and for lifting the several lines [xviii].


[ii] public notice did not appear until e.g. Donegal Democrat 11 December 1959

[iii] copy in IRRS collection

[iv] Donegal Democrat 1 January 1960

[v] IRRS Journal No. 26 (Spring 1960), p. 271; Irish Railfans’ News Vol. 6, No. 1 (January 1960) and No. 2 (April 1960).

[vi] for example, Dr E M Patterson The County Donegal Railways (1982, p. 100); J W P Rowledge A Regional History of Railways Vol. 16 Ireland (1995, p. 45); Doyle & Hirsch Railways in Ireland 1834-1984 (1983, p. 80); Stephen Johnson Johnson’s Atlas & Gazetteer (1997, Route 93)

[vii] Derry Journal 5 January 1960

[viii] Dr E M Patterson The County Donegal Railways (1982, p. 100)

[ix] Irish Railfans’ News Vol. 6, No. 1 (January 1960)

[x] Donegal Democrat 8 January 1960

[xi] Irish Railfans’ News Vol. 6, No. 1 (January 1960)

[xii] Donegal Democrat 8 January 1960

[xiii] People’s Press 2 January 1960

[xiv] 15 January 1960

[xv] of 30 January 1960

[xvi] Strabane Weekly News 13 February 1960

[xvii] 1 January 1960

[xviii] The subsequent lifting of the lines was recorded in IRRS Journal No. 27, pp. 337-8, in subsequent issues of IRN and in Patterson’s The County Donegal Railways (1982)

 

The remainder of this article appears in IRRS Journal number 190, published June 2016

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