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Journal 191

Memories of the Railway in Castlerock


Castlerock is a small seaside village situated 67½ miles from Belfast on the single-track main line to Londonderry. The railway arrived in Castlerock in July 1853, and, in common with other seaside stations, the village received considerable investment from the railway company, aiming to attract holidaymakers. The investment was successful, and to this day Castlerock, has remained a favourite holiday destination for families and golfers, attracted by the beautiful beach and the eighteen-hole golf course. The village itself has changed little over the years, and although the population has increased (around 1300 at the time of writing), Castlerock has retained its friendliness and charm.

The typical red brick Northern Counties station building[1] was designed by John Lanyon and is central to the village. Castlerock is the only block post dividing the 33½ miles from Coleraine to Derry. The section from Castlerock to Derry is 28 miles in length, whilst the Coleraine section is a mere 5½ miles. The passing loop is nowhere near the halfway point. At the time of station culls on 18 October 1976, Castlerock station served the most populated village, so it made sense at that time to retain the station along with its infrastructure.

The passing loop and semaphores are worked by a 10-lever Railway Signal Company frame in the signal cabin situated at the Belfast end of the Up platform. The original NCC cabin was closed in 1969, and the temporary structure built to replace it remained in use until this year, when the mechanical signals and loop are to be swept away with the completion of a new station and loop at Bellarena. Castlerock station was formerly signalled for bi-directional running on the Down loop only - this survived into the late 60s and was probably removed when the new cabin opened in 1969. As a result of this Castlerock has since been operated in a very traditional manner with Belfast-bound trains serving the Up (Main) platform and Derry trains serving the Down (Loop) platform even if no crossing is required. The section to Londonderry is worked by key token and the section to Coleraine is worked by Tyers Tablet. Despite a 40mph speed restriction through the station due to the sharp curve, Manson staff exchangers were provided on the running line and loop.

There is a level crossing and wrought iron footbridge at the Coleraine end of the station, whilst at the Londonderry end, the railway negotiates two foot crossings before diving into a tunnel. The busy level crossing is situated at the platform ends and effectively shortens the running line and passing loop if road traffic is not to be blocked. There have been a few changes to the station over the years. Arriving into Castlerock from the Coleraine direction, a traveller would once have passed a goods loading platform and a hand-operated crane served by a siding on the Down side close to the Down home signal. Close to the level crossing, there was a small brick base water tank on the Up side. Continuing over the level crossing and into the station, there was a small wooden waiting room on the Down platform, which was unfortunately burned down on 5 November 1992. The footbridge was once situated just after the waiting room, and the original signal cabin was on the Up side after the footbridge. On leaving the station towards Londonderry, the traveller would have passed a couple of camping carriages on a siding on the Down side and further on, beyond the foot crossing, Warkes’ siding diverged, also on the Down side, and served a quarry.

Although the station is on the main line from Belfast, it is situated beyond Coleraine and has always been a bit quieter than the line from Belfast to Portrush. Nevertheless, Castlerock has enjoyed a frequent passenger service over the years and has seen a wide variety of trains. It may now seem hard to believe but such was the diversity of trains to be seen in Castlerock that it was sufficient not only to create my interest in railways but also to sustain my interest without the need to go further afield. Growing up in the village over 40 years ago provided me with a front row seat to the railway operations at that time, and given the impending changes to the station, I feel this is a fitting time to share some of my memories.

In common with many families, we spent a fortnight every summer in Castlerock during the late 60s. I remember clearly the level crossing bell ringing and, as the barriers were lowered, I would make a dash to the station and up onto the footbridge to enjoy the thrill of the train passing beneath me. All the better if the driver accelerated quickly and a thick black cloud of smoke engulfed those brave enough to stand directly over the exhaust. I was never alone on the footbridge; there were always about half a dozen or more children all vying for the best view of the train. At this time, in the very late 60s, steam had all but disappeared on the main line and the trains passing through would have been MPDs and the newly introduced 70 Class railcars. Locomotive and railcar types meant nothing to me at this time. I was just happy to enjoy the sights and sounds of the railway.

A move to Castlerock in 1971, at the age of ten, allowed me to see the railway all year round. But my interest didn’t really start until a school friend showed me his model railway, which he had built in the loft of his house. Many happy hours were spent watching his star performer, a Hornby ‘Princess Elizabeth’, and a rake of 4 or 5 carriages flying round the track. Although we had no interest in ‘full size’ railways at that time, we were familiar with most of the sounds of the different passenger trains passing through the village.

One afternoon we noticed an unusual sound coming from the direction of the railway which ran along the bottom of his garden. We pushed through a gap in the hedge onto the trackside and were rewarded by the sight of a long line of goods wagons hauled by a maroon-coloured Hunslet on a goods special to Londonderry. This was my first sight of a locomotive-hauled train, and the deafening sound as it accelerated towards the tunnels at Downhill, sparked what was to be a lifelong interest in railways.

Soon after this, I became a regular visitor to the signal cabin and one of my earliest memories was watching the signalman tap out the various codes on the telephone to advise the many crossing keepers that a train had left Castlerock. At this time in the early 1970s, Bellerena and Limavady Junction were still block posts and the crossings were still manually-operated. Admission to a signal cabin is normally at the discretion of the signalman and was not encouraged by management, but until the late 1990s, the signalmen at Castlerock were also required to sell tickets, which allowed me the rare privilege of watching them at work. A steady stream of intending passengers would enter the cabin during the 15 minutes or so before a train was due, many of whom would engage in friendly conversation with the signalman and with each other. This could make the cabin extremely crowded at times, especially in wet weather, and would have been quite a distraction for the signalman at a busy time. Jimmy Allen and Harry Cunning were the regular signalmen in those days, and their various duties were second nature to them. In the midst of all this activity, instrument bells would ring and levers would be thrown across, marking the imminent arrival of a train.

I would often watch from the cabin as Jimmy or Harry stood on the platform to hand the single line tablet to the driver of a train for the section to Coleraine or Bellerena/Limavady Junction, and when he returned, he would wind the big wheel to raise the level crossing gates before placing the tablet into the token instrument to clear the preceding section. In common with hundreds of other cabins throughout the Irish railway system, the passing of a train on a single line, especially if two trains were booked to cross, made for a period of intense activity followed by a lull of maybe a couple of hours before the whole scene was repeated.

As a teenager one of my duties was to go for the Belfast Telegraph each evening. Always keen to take the shortest route, I would walk across the football pitch and along the railway platform to get to the main road and the local newsagents, a walk of no more than 10 minutes. One winter evening, I arrived at the station just as the 18:00 passenger from Belfast was arriving. I stood and watched, and was surprised to see the signalman hand a fish supper to the driver along with the tablet. I asked the signalman who it was for, although I assumed it was for the driver. “It’s for the signalman at Limavady Junction”, he told me. I remarked that the chips would probably be cold by the time he got them. “Sure hasn’t he got a stove in the cabin to heat them up,” the signalman replied. With Limavady Junction being so remote from civilisation, I’m sure the signalman was glad of a hot meal on a cold winter’s night!

During the mid 1970s, the wooden sleepers around the station were replaced, and the diesel-hydraulic locomotives Nos. 1, 2 or 3 often arrived at Castlerock, hauling either loaded hopper wagons (ex spoil contract) or flat wagons of rails, invariably trailing a wooden brake van. When it was time to return to Coleraine, the engine (at the Derry end of the Down loop) would run round and couple up to the guard’s van. After hauling the van to the Coleraine end of the loop, this would then be loose shunted over the level crossing into the Up platform, where the guard would bring it safely to a stand. The remaining wagons and engine were then shunted against it and coupled ready for departure. I remember watching this train arriving at the station as a young lad, and the driver, seeing my interest, invited me onto the footplate for a trip to Bellarena (where there was still a passing loop). Although a favourite memory, I was struck by the alarming motion of the six wheeled ‘shunter’ as it swayed and rolled along the track and I was convinced it was going to bounce off the walls in Downhill Tunnel.

In 1978, I bought my first camera and I began to photograph the railways around Castlerock. I paid particular attention to the CIÉ goods trains (‘The CIÉ Fitteds’) from Londonderry to Lisburn/Adelaide. When I moved to Castlerock in 1971, there were two goods trains each weekday evening which were hauled by either an MPD or a couple of 70 Class power cars off the last evening passenger trains to Londonderry. In later years, I remember the frequent use of a Hunslet. By 1978, the two goods trains had been reduced to one, which passed Castlerock just after 21:00, and, as I could see the station from my landing window, I would often count the wagons as they passed below the footbridge. Sometimes this train had as many as 30 fitted wagons, including fertiliser, bagged and bulk cement, Guinness, and 20-foot container wagons. Apart from the distinctive fertiliser wagons, all were four wheeled. These goods trains were difficult to photograph as the light was low and they very rarely stopped. I also made the usual mistake of thinking they would always be there, and as a result, I have very few photographs. I never saw the Down working of the goods as it passed through between 04:00 and 05:00 each Tuesday to Saturday morning, a time when I was in my second sleep! Loadings on the evening goods gradually declined, and with improved roads to the North West, the traffic finally ceased sometime in the very early 1980s.

Although the nightly goods trains had ended, there were now block trains of fertiliser passing through, the frequency depending on demand from the farmers in the Derry and Donegal areas. I remember occasions when as many as three loaded trains would have passed through in one week, usually with 8 wagons but sometimes with 10. The fertiliser trains would usually run on weekdays, although I did see them very occasionally on weekends. The working timetables in the 1980s indicate that this train passed Castlerock nonstop at 11.38, but in practice, despite a 45mph speed restriction when loaded, it always arrived around 11:00 and waited to cross the 11:05 Londonderry to Belfast passenger. Standard practice was to bring the train to a halt with the locomotive at the Belfast side of the level crossing. It was seldom allowed to cross the road into the platform, as the train was often too long for the loop and would have blocked the level crossing. This also sped up the tablet exchange when the Up train arrived, as the driver didn’t need to walk the length of the train after collecting the tablet.

Motive power for the fertilisers varied and nearly every class and combination of locomotives could have turned up. In the early days, trains were usually hauled by two or three 70 Class power cars. One of my early photographs, taken on a Kodak Instamatic, shows a single 70 Class power car hauling 8 fertiliser wagons, but this was very unusual. Over the years, I can recall seeing A Class, 141 Class, Hunslets (sometimes two engines working in multiple), NIR 111 Class, and, on one memorable occasion, a Hunslet double-headed with an MV[2], a driver being required on each engine!

My working hours in the early 1980s meant that I was sometimes still in bed at 11:00 and I was often wakened by the sound of a GM or Hunslet crawling to a halt at the station – the distinctive sound of these noisy engines being easily heard throughout the village. The arrival of a fertiliser always spurred me into action and I would head for the tunnels to photograph the train at Port Vantage between the tunnels or at Downhill. As the fertiliser arrived at 11:00 and the 11:05 passenger from Londonderry arrived at 11:38, this gave me a good 20 to 25 minutes to walk through the longer, Castlerock Tunnel, and reach Port Vantage. If time permitted, I could walk through the second shorter tunnel and get to Downhill. This was in the days before health & safety, but looking back, I can appreciate the danger of walking through a railway tunnel, in complete darkness, with a train only minutes away and thundering towards me. I didn’t worry about this at the time and always seemed to arrive at my chosen spot well before the oncoming passenger train.

One of the advantages of living in Castlerock was that Londonderry is a terminal station and whatever goes Down must come Up the same way. This, of course, was the case with the fertiliser trains, and I could always look forward to seeing the return working later that day. Locomotive and wagon availability was a big concern at this time, and CIÉ were always keen to have their train unloaded and returned South as soon as possible. Sometimes this would result in an engine being returned light or wagons being left in Londonderry if they were not unloaded on time for the 15:13 departure. The return working passed through Castlerock at around 15:55, where it crossed the 14:10 Down passenger. Very occasionally I would notice only 5 or 6 wagons being returned south when there had been 8 loaded wagons in the morning. This was normally because of some delay in unloading at Londonderry and would mean that the next return working could have up to 12 empty wagons. What had been a very common and interesting sight at Castlerock for many years became gradually less frequent and disappeared in the mid-1990s.

In addition to the goods workings, the service trains of the 1970s were also of great interest. The Derry line was worked almost exclusively by 70 Class with the occasional appearance of an MPD. The 70 class and MPDs were made up of an assortment of different carriages and such was the variety that apart from the power cars, no two carriages were alike. Some carriages were open and many still had 1st and 2nd class compartments. Standard class passengers had the use of these 1st class compartments long after the withdrawal of 1st class in 1978. A particular favourite of mine, when travelling from Castlerock, was GNR(I) carriage No. 727 which dated from 1943. This was marshalled into a 5- or 6-car 70 Class set and passed through the village on an almost daily basis. I always chose to sit in this carriage as I felt I was travelling on something which belonged in a museum. It was an open carriage and the seats were so old that I imagined they hadn’t changed since it was built, although in reality, it was formally a buffet car on the Derry road. No. 727 was preserved by the RPSI but unfortunately was scrapped in the 1990s.

At this time, parcel traffic was a source of revenue for the railways, and the 70 Class that passed through would almost always have been trailing a parcel van. These were bogie vans and I particularly remember seeing three which had been built as brakes by the NCC in 1936 and others which I recall had been converted from MED trailers. It is hard to believe now that former GNR and NCC vehicles were such a common sight in Castlerock until the end of the 1970s.

Another common seasonal sight at Castlerock during the late 70s and early 80s was the Sunday School excursion from Londonderry to Portrush, which usually ran on Thursdays during May and June. It was always easy to tell if an excursion was running as two or three empty MPD carriages would be tripped through on the rear of the evening passenger trains from Belfast at the start of the week. I have an early memory of a combination of BUT and MPD trailer carriages being used for this traffic, but the BUTs eventually disappeared. The carriages would be shunted together at Londonderry ready for the Thursday morning 09:20 departure. A characteristic of these excursion trains was their length, a 5- or 6-car 70 or 80 class plus 5 or 6 MPD carriages made for a long train of up to 11 or 12 carriages. This train would arrive in Castlerock at around 09:55 where it would wait to cross the 08:25 Down passenger from Belfast. If the excursion was fouling the points at the Derry end of the station, then it was allowed to leave first. A run-round was required at Coleraine to place the 70 or 80 Class set at the correct end of the MPD trailers for the run to Portrush in the morning and when returning to Derry in the evening. Arrival at Castlerock in the evening was usually timed to follow the 17:55 Down passenger train from Belfast. The empty MPD carriages were then returned to Belfast on Friday, on the rear of scheduled passenger trains if they were needed at the weekend for specials to Portrush. The carriages would remain in Londonderry if there were no specials from Belfast and if there was an excursion the following week.

A point worth mentioning is the number of times the loop at Castlerock was required for special workings, with the fertilisers and Sunday school excursions often requiring a crossing in both directions. I’ve always felt it was more convenient to cross trains in Castlerock as Platform No. 2 in Coleraine was usually occupied by the Portrush branch set.

Easter on the railways would result in a few special workings, although most of these were run between Belfast and Portrush. In the 1980s, demand for travel from Londonderry required only one special on Easter Monday which passed Castlerock nonstop and worked directly to Portrush. I can only ever remember this train being worked by a 5- or 6-piece 80 Class. All other through specials to and from Portrush would stop in Castlerock and were almost always worked by railcars. There was a notable exception to this at Easter 1983 when a shortage of rolling stock resulted in some return workings on Monday and Tuesday being worked by NIR GM 112 and a set of CIÉ Park Royals. This was typical of railways everywhere in Ireland during these years – anything could turn up!

Anyone living in Castlerock during the 70s and 80s who travelled regularly by train would quickly have become familiar with the timetable as there were only minor changes to the train times,although the total number of trains passing through did vary slightly from year to year. During this period there was a maximum of 14 passenger trains (per day) and there were regular booked crossings of trains. The first train from Londonderry would pass Castlerock before 08:00, but for almost fifteen years from October 1976 until May 1991, the first train from Belfast did not pass through until after 10:00. The 1977/78 timetable was an exception to the above, when there were as few as 9 trains per day, 5 Down and 4 Up, and the first train from Londonderry passed at 08:32. This familiarity with the train times meant that whenever I heard the level crossing bell ring I would check my watch and if there was no service train due then I knew it was a special working.

One such occasion was Monday 22nd October 1990 when the level crossing gates were lowered unexpectedly and GM 181 and the MkIII Executive carriages arrived into the station with what turned out to be an empty coaching stock special to Londonderry. The loop at Castlerock again proved useful as the train was running late and had to wait to cross the 14:40 ex Derry. The next day this train formed a Harp Executive special conveying publicans to Dundalk and back and it also ran the following day. The empty stock then returned south late on Wednesday evening. Less than a year later on Tuesday 28 May 1991, the Executive set again arrived in Castlerock, this time hauled by GM 141 on a Golfers’ special. This had worked from Dublin and it ran to Coleraine for stabling during the day. It returned to Castlerock in the evening and after 141 ran round the train, it waited to cross the 18:05 from Belfast.     

Although Castlerock may seem a bit off the beaten track, being situated in the far flung corner of the North West, the variety of motive power in use on Northern Ireland Railways in addition to the occasional visitor from the South made for a varied railway scene. Growing up with the railway on my doorstep and so much a part of my life, I was reluctant to move away from the village. However, by the time I did eventually move from Castlerock to live in Coleraine in 1996, I felt that the more interesting traffic had stopped and that I had witnessed the end of an era.

After moving to Coleraine, I felt I had lost touch with the railway a little, but I still did my best to keep an eye out for anything unusual passing through. There was a surprise in the 1997 timetable with the introduction of the 15.56 from Central to Derry, which, on Fridays, was regularly locomotive-hauled by a 111 Class. From Monday to Thursday, it was a through train from Whitehead, worked by an 80 Class, but on Fridays it started from Central and bypassed Great Victoria Street. It then called at all stations to Londonderry, calling at Castlerock at 18.02. On the return journey, it left Londonderry at 19:10 and called again at Castlerock at 19:42. Although it wasn’t always guaranteed to be locomotive-hauled, this was a welcome train to photograph in the summer months, and it continued into the 1998 timetable. What turned out to be the last regular special working took place for a short period from around October 1999 to January 2000, when timber trains ran from Londonderry and were worked by NIR 111 Class and IÉ 071’s. These trains ran as required, usually following the last train into or out of Derry. Following this, the line reverted to a timetable worked exclusively by 80 and 450 class railcars until the introduction of the CAF railcars in 2005, which gradually took over all services.

All of these special workings would often have passed through Castlerock virtually unnoticed had it not been for the existence of the passing loop, which often required a special to stop and wait for an oncoming train. One of the features of manual token exchange systems is the requirement, when trains cross, that the first train to arrive is the last train to leave. In many cases special/freight workings were timed to arrive at Castlerock before the service train and this could result in them sitting for quite long periods of time, up to 30 minutes in the case of the morning fertiliser train. A fortunate consequence of this was that it gave me a chance to see the train arriving and, if I wanted to photograph it, I could get to somewhere out the line before its departure.

Ever since moving to Castlerock in 1971 there has always been the threat that the loop would be removed. Fortunately Castlerock escaped this fate and retained its importance as a passing place until now[3]. It also has the distinction of being the last station in Ireland where one can see somersault signals in daily use. But nowhere on the railway is immune from the march of progress and the Autumn of 2016 will see the removal of the loop and  semaphore signals, and the end of manual exchange of tablets. This will effectively downgrade Castlerock station to a halt. Although these improvements will be welcomed by the travelling public and will result in a more frequent and flexible timetable, I can’t help but think that the character of the station will be lost. As technology finally catches up with Castlerock, anyone interested in the railways around this area in future will witness a railway vastly different from the one that I have been fortunate to experience.

[1] The well-kept station building now accommodates the “Temple Bar” pub and restaurant.

[2] Former CIÉ 201 Class, re-equipped with General Motors power units; originally C Class with Crossley power units.

[3] Early September 2016

The remainder of this article appears in IRRS Journal number 191, published October 2016

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Revised: May 19, 2017 .