Belfast & Co. Down Railway
Crest of the Belfast & County Down Railway, incorporating
the arms of Belfast & Down
BCDR map showing the
network at its greatest size
1900s postcard of the newly built Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle,
adjacent to the railway station
colour postcard showing the BCDR's Queen's Quay terminus prior
to reconstruction in 1911
engine runs-round its train under the post-1911 train shed,
which covered the station's
Quay as seen in its UTA days
was an important junction, where the line for Newtownards/Donaghadee
split from the main line to Newcastle. It also served the
Andrews Linen Mill, which had its own siding.
still largely intact as a private residence, was one of the
intermediate stations on the main line
Junction, where the Ballynahinch line left the main line,
was in the middle of nowhere between Saintfield and Crossgar
Station, what was hoped to be a through station on the line's
way to Dromore ended up a terminus
Station in the 1940s, the site is now occupied by a supermarket,
in front of the St. Patrick's Centre
train prepares to leave Downpatrick Station
Loop Platform in January 1950. This is the only surviving
BCDR structure in Downpatrick, was were passengers from Belfast-Newcastle
trains could change for the Downpatrick-Ardglass branch service
was the first intermediate station beyond Downpatrick, and
still stands virtually intact
terminus, Newcastle Station,
at the base of the Mourne Mountains
coal-guzzling BCDR 'Baltic' tank leads its train along the
Bangor Branch line
just run round its train, a BCDR tank engine prepares to leave
Bangor bound for Belfast
postcard of the BCDR's Bangor terminus
station, where the BCDR had hoped
to run boat trains to catch ships to Portpatrick
now preserved No. 30 leads it train into the now derelict
Ardglass Station shortly before closure on the 14th January
was where the BCDR met the GNR(I) for the second time (the
other being at Central Junction, now near NIR's Bridge End
cuckoo in the nest? GNR No. 39 prepares to leave Newcastle.
GNR trains to Newcastle lasted five years more than their
Baltic No. 22 awaits its fate in the ruins of the engine shed
in the mid 1950s at Queens Quay
and County Down Railway Company operated a system for 100 years
between 1848 and 1948, which at its peak covered 80 miles, exclusively
within County Down.
scheme came into being with 'a meeting of parties favourable to
the promotion of a railway to Holywood, Comber and Newtownards'
in February 1845, held in the Donegall Arms Hotel, Belfast, and
the company itseld was incorporated in 26 June 1846.
This was during
the height of 'Railway Mania' when numerous railway companies were
formed, usually competing with each other to build in the same area.
The BCDR, familiarly
known as the 'County Down', was no exception and had several rivals
within the county, including the Great County Down Railway and the
Holywood Atmospheric Railway. The BCDR bought off the Holywood Atmospheric
Railway and a degree of compromise was reached with the Great County
Down, so in June 1846 the BCDR obtained the Act of Parliament necessary
to build the railway.
On the 2nd August
1848 with the first section of line from Belfast to Holywood opened
to passenger traffic for the first time. Later this line would extend
to Bangor and the main line would run from Belfast to Newcastle,
with branches to Donaghadee, Ballynahinch and Ardglass.
size, the County Down was not an unimaginative railway, although
most passenger services were catered for by uncomfortable and shaky
six-wheeled carriages right up until the UTA takeover in 1948. The
railway ran its own paddle-steamer service (the Bangor Boat) until
1915 and ran bus services to towns not connected by rail.
The County Down
had 12 different classes of steam engines during its life, and was
not afraid to try out several experimental types of engine, most
notable the Holywood Railmotors, bogie carriages with locomotives
built onto the end, which were highly successful, operating a shuttle
service between Holywood and Belfast.
were the 'Baltic' class of locomotives. These required huge amounts
of coal and were unsuited to the main line as they were too heavy,
being relegated to the Bangor line. The County Down also ran the
first ever diesel-electric locomotive in Ireland, D1 (later renumbered
No.2) was built by Harland and Wolff shipyards and was used on the
Ballynahinch line. Another diesel-electric locomotive was hired
from Harland and Wolff, No.28, which operated the Ardglass line.
The County Down
also played a vital role in the promotion of tourism in the Newcastle,
with the construction of the Slieve Donard Hotel in 1897 and helping
to form the Down Royal Golf Course, running the weekly 'Golfers'
Express' from Belfast to Newcastle.
The Belfast and County Down Main Line
scheme envisaged the line built from Queen's Quay in Belfast to
the towns of Holywood, Comber, Newtownards, Bangor via Conlig, Donaghadee,
Killinchy, Killyleagh and Downpatrick.
slow at first and the company decided to concentrate on the Belfast-Holywood
and Belfast-Newtownards sections for the time being. Work on the
lines was contracted out to William Dargan (who was responsible
for building Ireland's first railway, the Dublin and Kingstown)
with the single-track Holywood line opening in August 1848 and the
Newtownards line opening in May 1850, with a gala opening day on
6th May 1850.
By this time
the powers granted in the 1846 Act of Parliament had lapsed and
had to be renewed before work could start towards Downpatrick. A
new Act of Parliament was obtained in 1855, and saw the original
scheme redrawn from the Killinchy/Killyleagh alignment to serve
the towns of Ballygowan, Saintfield and Crossgar.
This new route
passed through some difficult terrain and required many rock cuttings.
The most notable one between Comber and Ballygowan was known as
'the gullet', now filled in. In between Saintfield and
Crossgar another branch was built to the market town of Ballynahinch,
opening on the 10th September 1858. Although a terminus, the station
was built as a through-station, in the forlorn hope of extending
the line to Dromore.
to Downpatrick was opened 23rd March 1859. Although enough land
was purchased between Comber and Downpatrick to allow double track
to be laid, and overbridges built to accomodate double track, this
entire section remained single track throughout its life.
A couple of
years later in 1861 it was thought that a southern extension to
the railway might be possible when the Downpatrick and Newry Railway
Company hoped to connect the County Down with the Newry, Warrenpoint
and Rostrevor Railway. However, although shares were issued, the
scheme failed to emerge and it was not until 1866 when the Downpatrick,
Dundrum and Newcastle Railway Act was passed that a southern extension
became a reality.
The DDNR was
originally an independent company, but a latter Act of Parliament
in 1868 allowed the BCDR to invest in the company, effectively making
it a parent company to the DDNR. The line opened in March 1869,
operated by the County Down for 12 years until completely taken
over by the County Down.
As this extension
was a separate development from the original line, trains from Belfast
had to enter Downpatrick station, run the engine around the carriages
and then proceed to Newcastle. In order to over come this an avoiding
line was built just outside Downpatrick, linking the Belfast and
Newcastle lines. A small platform was built at the junction of the
new line and the Newcastle line to allow passenger to disembark
and board a branch train to Downpatrick, or later to Ardglass.
The main 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 main line 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
Both Acts of
Parliaments granted to the County Down gave them the power to build
to Bangor via a branch off the Donaghadee line at Conlig, but after
several years the company's Board of Directors decided against this
plan and allowed the powers to lapse in 1861. In 1865 another company
had arrived on the scene as well - the Belfast, Holywood and Bangor
Railway. This company had persuaded Parliament and landowners to
carry on the line from Holywood along the shore of Belfast Lough
A separate station
was built at Holywood and two notable stations at Cultra and Helen's
Bay were built to serve the area's landowners before reaching Bangor.
The line opened to traffic in May 1865. From 1859 the BCDR was suffering
from increasingly worrying financial problems and in an attempt
to ease these problems sold the Belfast-Holywood stretch of line
to the BHBR, giving that company access to the city, although the
BCDR required the BHBR to build a separate station at Queen's Quay.
later, in an effort to clear itself of heavy debts the BHBR leased
its line to the County Down in 1874. In 1884 an Act of Parliament
transferred all the BHBR assets to the County Down. All BHBR rolling
stock was taken into the County Down's fleet and renumbered. The
two stations were linked by opening a doorway between the two stations,
but a complete renovation in 1911 merged the two stations, taking
in the BHBR platforms and adding an impressive new glass canopy
over the platforms.
The BCDR itself,
however, was now concentrating on finishing the branch line to Donaghadee,
on which work had temporarily halted at Newtownards in 1850. The
line opened in June 1861 and it was hoped that the railway could
tap in to the steamer services between Donaghadee and the Scottish
port of Portpatrick. However, Portpatrick was far too open to storms
and rough seas for any regular service to occur and soon the main
steamer services ran from Larne to Stranraer, and Donaghadee was
unable to offer the County Down Railway any traffic from Scotland.
The Ardglass Branch
The branch line
to Ardglass came about from indirect government aid to the herring
industry. Ardglass was a busy fishing port, but had a small population
so the majority of traffic was goods. The line left the Belfast-Newcastle
line about half a mile south of Downpatrick Loop Platform and was
built as inexpensively as possible, there were few earthworks and
numerous short, steep gradients.
The line was
begun 1890 with the granting of the Downpatrick, Killough &
Ardglass Railway Act, obtained under the Light Railways (Ireland)
Act, although in reality the line did not differ much from the rest
of the BCDR system when built. It opened in 1892 and stations were
built at the Downpatrick racecourse, Ballynoe, Killough and Ardglass,
with halts at Coney Island and Bright built later.
A small stretch
of line from Ardglass Station down to the harbour was laid so that
fishing boats could unload directly into wagons, but this was rarely
used and was soon lifted.
The Castlewellan Branch
becoming a popular tourist resort, the much larger Great Northern
Railway (Ireland), operator of the Belfast to Dublin line, sought
to expand into the town. The company already had a branch line through
Banbridge which terminated at the small hamlet of Ballyroney, 18
miles from Newcastle, and wanted to build from there through Castlewellan
down into Newcastle.
The County Down
fought against these proposals but in the end a compromise was reached
- the Great Northern was to build from Ballyroney to Castlewellan
and the County Down was to build from Newcastle to Castlewellan.
The line opened
in March 1906, and Castlewellan Station was run jointly by the two
companies, the BCDR maintaining the run-round loop while the GNR(I)
maintaining the station and the signalling, but crucially, the GNR(I)
would have running powers to Newcastle. In return the BCDR got running
powers to Ballyroney, although they had argued for running rights
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, and with extra trains running into Newcastle
a new station, twice the size of the original, was opened in the
part of the BCDR network, the Central line was used by both the
GNR(I) and the County Down for excursion trains. The line was built
by the Belfast Central Railway with the intention of connecting
the BCDR, the GNR(I) and the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway,
which later became part of the London Midland and Scottish Railway.
The Act of Parliament
was granted in 1864, but as land was expensive around the City the
Central was soon in financial difficulties. A new Act and a new
Board of Directors in 1872 pushed work forward. The line ran from
a junction half a mile south of Great Victoria Street to a station
at Queen's Bridge, with a branch from the Albert Bridge to the County
Down, joining the line close to Ballymacarrett Junction. The company
soon lost out to competition from tramways and was bought over by
the GNR(I) which ended passenger traffic, using the line for goods
and excursion trains to Bangor.
Later a tunnel
was built under the end of Queen's Bridge, connecting the Central
line with the LMS (NCC), but this was only used for goods traffic.
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 County Down 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.
Ards Tourist Trophy Races
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 County Down. The course was roughly triangular and linked Dundonald,
Newtownards and Comber. The start was at Quarry Corner and the route
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.
World War and the Ballymacarrett Accident
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
7.10 am 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'.
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 public ownership.
The End of
In 1946 the
Northern Ireland Government announced that it was planning to bring
the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board, the BCDR and the LMS
(NCC) under one body to be known as the Ulster Transport Authority.
The UTA came into being in September 1948 and the independent life
of the railways was ended, except for the Great Northern which was
not absorbed for ten years due to the complex legal arrangements
of its cross-border nature.
Apart from new
rolling stock from the NCC, running of the County Down lines remained
unchanged until 1949 when drastic cuts in services appeared, and
from January 1950 all lines south of Comber closed, with the Belfast-Comber-Donaghadee
line closing the following April. The UTA found, however, that they
were obliged to run the Castlewellan line while Great Northern trains
ran on it and this was serviced by the Harland diesel until April
1950, although Great Northern services continued until 1955.
Running on the
Bangor line remained unaffected, but the stations at Kinnegar, Marino
and Craigavad were closed, although both Marino and Craigavad were
soon reopened (with Craigavad closing again a year later) and two
new stations and Crawfordsburn and Seahill were opened. The Belfast
Central line, which linked the County Down with the rest of the
rail network, was split in 1965 when Middlepath Street bridge was
removed for road improvements, isolating the Bangor line.
were gradually replaced from 1953 onwards with the introduction
of the Multi-Engined Diesel (MED) railcars, usually running in a
three set formation. County Down carriages were withdrawn, with
the underframes removed for scrap and the carriage bodies sold off.
All of the County
Down's fleet of locomotives were scrapped, bar No. 30 which was
saved for preservation in the Transport Museum and the two diesels.
Diesel engine No. 2 was returned to Harland and Wolff, where it
worked the shipyards until the 1970s when it was scrapped. Fellow
diesel No. 28 spent the next twenty years shunting at Great Victoria
Street Station, and survived until the closure of Great Victoria
Street when it succumbed to the cutter's torch.
life, the UTA was accused of favouring road transport versus rail
transport. Sixty-one percent of the railway lines in Northern Ireland
had been closed and further cuts were planned. After much dispute
the Transport Bill of 1967 divided the UTA into three separate companies,
Northern Ireland Railways, Ulsterbus and Northern Ireland Carriers
(for road freight traffic).
In 1972 it was
announced that the Bangor line was to be reconnected with the former
GNR(I) lines and all services bar the Larne trains were to be re-routed
into a new station to be built on the Central line, replacing Great
Victoria Street Station and Queen's Quay Station. Work was completed
in 1976 and Great Victoria Street Station and Queen's Quay Station
were closed and demolished, although Great Victoria Street Station
was reopened in 1995. The workshops at Queen's Quay were refurbished
to form the Central Services Depot, which was closed in 1996 when
the cross-harbour link between Central Station and York Road Station
The main reason
given for the closure of the County Down main line was that the
towns and villages it serviced were rural and not densely populated.
However, within ten years of the closures most towns, for example
Dundonald, Comber and Newtownards, had substantially grown in size,
virtually guaranteeing commuter traffic.
In the last
couple of years, due to increasing car use by commuters, several
proposals have been drawn up in regards to the Comber line ranging
from reopening the line as it was when closed, to a light railway
or a limited size busway. Certainly with the near-critical increase
of road congestion, it has been slowly and expensively learnt that
the answer to congestion is not to build more roads but to fund
alternative forms of transport. Perhaps
there's life in the old County Down yet.
This article is dedicated to all those people
who worked on the BCDR
and further reading:
Railway Record Society
- History of rail transport in Ireland
Railway Station Then & Now
H.C. Casserly - Outline of Irish Railway History
D. Coakham - The Belfast & County Down Railway
Dr. E.M. Patterson - The Belfast & County Down Railway