back at railways of bygone days, many people view the subject with rose tinted
spectacles and a high degree of nostalgia. To those who ran those same
railways the matter however was one of hard nosed business. Much of the
history of the railways revolves around the business of finance, mergers,
acquisitions and so forth.
the mid 19th Century a new business began to grow rapidly across
the nation. This was the business of transportation. As the country became
increasingly industrialised and the economy grew there was a growing demand
for the movement of people and goods. This was in part driven by and also
itself drove the boom of the railway industry in the British
Isles. New companies sprang up across the land; the northern
province of Ulster in Ireland was
no exception. Railways represented an exciting new venture to many
businessmen. They represented prestige to landowners whose property carried
the rail and stations. Finally they represented opportunity to merchants and
businessmen whose towns were served with passenger and freight services.
Belfast & County Down Railway Early
The Belfast and
County Down Railway Company operated a system, which at its peak covered 80
miles, exclusively within CountyDown
between 1848 and 1948.
The Belfast and
County Down Railway Company was formed on the 25th February 1845 by
a number of local businessmen. Originally theirintention
was to open a railway serving Holywood, Comber and Newtownards. This was
later extended to include the ancient market and ecclesiastical town of Downpatrick.
The company received its
licence by Act of Parliament in 1846. Two years later the line to Holywood
was opened on 2nd
August 1848. Reports of the time
enthused that this was a most comfortable and elegant means of transportation
and initial receipts were promising.
Construction soon began on
the mainline to Comber. This was completed in late 1849 and the line was then
extended to Newtownards.
Opening day was 6th May 1850 and
was a gala occasion attracting large crowds. Although the station building at
Dundonald was only partially completed, the first trains made brief stops
there as they made their way back and forth down the single track between Belfast to
The permission obtained in
the original 1846 Act of Parliament for the rest of the route to Downpatrick
lapsed and in 1855 a new Act was obtained. The original route plan was
altered to include the villages of Ballygowan, Saintfield and Crossgar. The
route passed through some difficult terrain and required many rock cuttings.
The most notable one between Comber and Ballygowan was known as “the gullet”.
The line to the Ballynahinch via Ballynahinch Junction was opened in 10th September 1858.
The mainline to Downpatrick was opened 23rd March 1859. Although enough land was
purchased between Comber and Downpatrick to allow double track to be laid
this entire section remained single track throughout its life.
The Belfast, Holywood & Bangor Railway
1865 a new company, the Belfast, Holywood
and Bangor Railway company, opened a line between Holywood and Bangor. In
a period of financial difficulties the BCDR sold its Belfast to
Holywood branch to the BHBR. This gave the BHBR access to Belfast
city where it built a separate station adjoining the BCDR terminus. Over time
the BHBR began to run into financial difficulties. In 1874 they leased their Bangor
line to the BCDR. By 1884 the situation was irretrievable and the BHBR was
finally wound up by Act of Parliament. Its assets were transferred to the
BCDR and the adjacent stations at Queen’s Quay were merged. The photograph
shows this station sometime in
Aspirations towards Scotland
Meanwhile the line from
Newtownards was extended to Donaghadee, and was opened on the 3rd June 1861.
Donaghadee was seen as a key location as hopes were high that an important
sea link between Donaghadee and Portpatrick in Scotland
would develop and bring traffic into the system. A new harbour was completed
in Donaghadee in 1863. However concerns about the safety of Portpatrick
harbour saw the rival Larne - Stranraer link becoming the preferred route to Scotland.
The Downpatrick, Dundrum & Newcastle Railway
The directors of the BCDR
were keen to extend the line beyond Downpatrick. However, in 1861, a new
company, the Downpatrick & Newry Railway Company obtained an Act of
Parliament to build a railway linking the BCDR line at Downpatrick with the
Newry, Warrenpoint & Rostrevor Railway. These plans did not come to
fruition. It was not until 1866 that an alternative Act, the Downpatrick,
Dundrum & Newcastle Railway Act, was passed. This Act was modified in
1868, allowing the BCDR to invest in the company, effectively making it a
parent company to the DDNR. For 12 years the line was worked by the BCDR, at
which point it was purchased outright.
important because of the potential tourist trade. The scenic mountains of
Mourne, the sea-side location and beaches offered an attractive package. The
BCDR actively sought to encourage this market by assisting in the formation
of a golf club, the Royal County Down, near its station. In 1898 the company
opened the impressive 5 storey Slieve Donard Hotel with 120 rooms, again
close to the station.
The Downpatrick, Killough & Ardglass Railway
The Downpatrick, Killough
& Ardglass Railway was incorporated into the BCDR in 1890. At this time an
Act was obtained under the Light Railways (Ireland)
Act, though in reality the line did not differ much from the rest of the BCDR
system. This branch was partly funded by government grants to aid the herring
fishing industry at the harbours of Killough and Ardglass and was opened in
The Great Northern Railway (Ireland)
The much larger Great
Northern Railway (Ireland)
company had a branch line through Banbridge to Ballyroney some 18 miles from Newcastle.
The growth of the tourist trade to Newcastle
made it an attractive target for the GNR(I) to reach and they sought to
extend their line through Castlewellan to Newcastle.
The BCDR argued vigorously against such a move fearing it would mean a
reduction in traffic over their network. In the end an agreement was reached
whereby the companies would each extend their networks to meet at
Castlewellan. This would be a joint station and the GNR(I) would have running
powers to Newcastle. In
return the BCDR got running powers to Ballyroney. This was a small hamlet and
as such these powers had dubious value and were never exercised. The 24th March 1906 saw
the arrival of the first GNR(I) trains in Newcastle.
The line between
Ballymacarrett and Knock was doubled from 1877 onwards. As traffic increased
two further sections of line were doubled. This work began around 1892 on the
mainline from Knock to Comber and also the line to Bangor.
The latter was done in stages and completed in 1902. The rest of the network
remained single track throughout its lifetime.
The BCDR final network
The following map shows the
final form of the BCDR network. The route covered approximately 80 miles, all
During its lifetime
from 1848 – 1948 the line had some 51 stations though some closed after
reasonably short periods of use.
It is worth noting that the
BCDR not only ran a rail service. Between 1893 and 1915 they ran a passenger
steamer service on Belfast Lough. The journey ran between a jetty on Donegall
Quay and Bangor.
This service became affectionately became known as the ‘Bangor Boat’.
The company also branched out
into road freight services on the Ards peninsula between Newtownards and
Portaferry and also between Newcastle and
Ardglass. BCDR passenger buses also ran services across the county sometimes
in direct competition to the railway!
Early 20th Century
The period after the start
of the 20th Century was really the heyday of the BCDR system. In
1914 company dividends peaked at 6½%. War broke out in August that year.
Passenger receipts increased especially with traffic to the army base at
Ballykinlar which had an unadvertised halt for a period from 1915.
After the war there followed
a period of unregulated competition from bus operators. At one particular time
there were no less than 27 private bus services operating within CountyDown
alone! This competition was especially felt in towns where the railway
journey was longer than the equivalent road journey to Belfast. In
areas close to Belfast the
tram also was a major competitor. The extension of the tram line to Knock in
1905 led to cut throat competition for the commuter ticket.
The Ards Tourist Trophy Races
The RAC’s Tourist Trophy was
the prize for a series of road races first and was competed for on the Isle
of Man between 1905 and 1922. It was later revived from 1928 to 1936
with a new 13½ mile circuit in CountyDown.
The course was roughly triangular and linked Dundonald, Newtownards and
Comber.The start was at Quarry Corner and the route
raced clockwise. The BCDR main line crossed the route 4 times.Firstly at the site of the first Newtownards
station. Next at ‘Glass Moss’ level crossing, (1½ miles from Comber towards
Newtownards). Thirdly under the bridge at Comber station and then lastly
under the iron trellis bridge at Dundonald station. The photograph shows the
hairpin bend at the Central Bar in Dundonald. This event proved to be a great
tourist attraction and many people travelled by train to watch the practise
sessions and the races themselves. The BCDR took advantage of the situation
by offering cheap fares and even building a semi-permanent grandstand at
Comber. Glass Moss itself was not a normal halt but became so during the
races. The trains could not cross the road and operated to here from either
side.The races ended in 1936 after a
terrible accident in Newtownards when 8 spectators were killed on the
footpath near the Strangford Inn Hotel by an out of control car.
Second World War and Decline
Before the war, competition
from road passenger and freight services was stiff and the railway was
beginning to show the signs of declining profits.
During the Second World War
the BCDR saw a considerable increase in traffic. This was mainly due to
traffic arising from evacuees from Belfast who
were living outside the city and also troop movements.
On a foggy morning on the 10th January 1945
there was a fatal accident at Ballymacarrett in East
Belfast. A railmotor train from Holywood collided with the train from Bangor
which was stopped awaiting a signal change. 22 people were killed and a
further 24 people injured.The enquiry
into the accident placed the blame on the driver of the railmotor for
travelling too fast for the poor visibility and also on the company’s rules
relating to the passing of signals at ‘danger’. The company paid out a sum of
£80,000 in compensation. This was a figure the company could ill afford and
it wiped out its Contingencies Reserve. This coupled with declining post-war
traffic was one of the factors that led to the transfer of the company to
The Ulster Transport Authority
1946 the Government made public a plan to bring together several of the large
independent transport companies under public management by one body. The
companies included the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board (NIRTB), the
BCDR, the LMSR(NCC) and the GNR(I). These proposals were implemented in 1948
with the formation of the Ulster Transport Authority.
At take over the UTA inherited 181 BCDR passenger carriages, 9
passenger brakes, 4 bread vans, 2 carriage trucks and 10 horseboxes. The BCDR
wagon stock amounted to 629 revenue earning vehicles. Engineering stock to 23
ballast wagons and 9 rail wagons. Locomotive stock was made up of 1 diesel
locomotive and the reminder steam locomotives, 5 of which were tender engines
and the remaining 25 engines tanks, mostly Atlantics.
The UTA ran the CountyDown
service pretty much unchanged for 15½ months.
On 15th January 1950, the mainline south of Comber, the branch lines to
Ballynahinch and Ardglass were all closed to traffic. The 22nd April later that
same year saw the closure of the mainline between Ballymacarrett Junction and
Comber, along with the branch line to Donaghadee.
An Abandonment of Railways Order
was passed on the 8th July 1953. Shortly after the tracks began to be lifted and
station buildings demolished.
The Newcastle to Castlewellan branch remained open until the GNR(I)
line that linked to it closed on 2nd May 1955.
Of the former BCDR system only
the Bangor line survived. This is still operated today as part
of Translink’s Northern Ireland Railways service. The photograph below shows
the new integrated bus and rail station at Bangor.