A “SailRail” trip to Belfast via Dublin
January 2023: I am planning a journey to a part of the British Isles that I have never been to before: Northern Ireland. My idea is to travel by rail to Holyhead in Wales, across the Irish Sea to Dublin by ferry, and after a night in the Irish capital, north again by train to Belfast. As well as spending a few days in the largest city in the UK that I have yet to experience, I will make a couple of trips into the surrounding countryside. There, I will visit two museums that I hope will help me learn more about the history of railways on the island of Ireland.
I will be making use of “SailRail”, a cheap fare that offers travel from any British station to anywhere in Ireland and includes the cost of the ferry. Between Dublin and Belfast, I will be travelling on the cross-border Inter-City service that just last year celebrated its 75th anniversary: The Enterprise.
Train 1 — “Not The Irish Mail”
On a freezing cold Wednesday morning I manage to get up to Euston in less than an hour. With rail strikes and weather-related disruptions quite common recently, I have allowed more than enough time to catch my train north. Now I have about 60 minutes in hand.
To avoid the queues at Starbucks, I head up to the pub for a leisurely coffee and a croissant. It has been snowing up north and I have been fretting that my train will be cancelled. I am more confident now though; as I sip my drink, I check the progress of the inbound service from Holyhead; it is 20 minutes late, but it is running.
They have installed new train departure indicators at Euston, they break up the concourse a bit and provide colour, but just like the old system they have replaced, they don’t show the platform until almost the last minute. The sudden mad frantic rush of people towards the trains continues.
I am catching the 09:02 to Holyhead. It is operated by Avanti West Coast and scheduled to arrive at 12:50. I will then board the 14:10 ferry to Dublin for the 3 hour 15 minute journey across the Irish Sea. Trains have connected with boats to link London and Ireland along this route for more than 170 years; for much of the time the prestige services, like this morning departure, went by the name “Irish Mail”. Sadly, Virgin Trains dropped all this back in 2002; now it is simply the 09:02.
With the help of an app, I work out which platform I am supposed to be departing from in advance. I am already there as the train finally arrives late, only just ahead of our scheduled departure time. There are plenty of passengers getting off the train, but few are waiting to board. When we finally get underway around 10 minutes down, I count less than three people in my own carriage and very few in any of the others.
The train is formed of two 5-car “Voyager” units; the railway from Crewe to Holyhead isn’t electrified, so these diesel trains are used for the full journey. The train is comfortable enough, but the noise from the underfloor engine at 125 mph is quite irritating.
My ticket to Dublin* has cost me around £50 (it is the same from any station in the south of England). I am aware that the budget airlines seem to offer cheaper fares, but for this price I am travelling door-to-door with no airport transfer costs or fees for seat selection or luggage space. My whole London to Dublin journey will take me about 9 hours, much longer than flying, but for me, of course, the journey is part of the attraction.
*SailRail fares are also available direct to Belfast, but without the facility to stop off in Dublin.
As we go north it starts to look a bit wintry outside. There is a decent covering of snow on the ground as we pass between Stafford and Crewe. We run 10 minutes behind schedule as far as Chester and then we absorb a generous amount of recovery time built into the schedule. We run to time thereafter.
After Chester the railway leaves England and travels along the North Wales coast, the sea is visible for much of the journey to Bangor. This line was constructed between 1844 and 1850 by the Chester and Holyhead Railway and later absorbed into the London North Western Railway.
This was a popular holiday route and back in the heyday of the 1930s and 1950s the line would be packed with summer specials heading from the industrial cities to the North Wales resorts. Much of the route was four tracks and the massive signal boxes that remain by the side of the railway are testament to how busy it all once was.
We keep heading along the coast making stops at Prestatyn, Rhyl, Colwyn Bay and Llandudno Junction. At Conwy the train skirts alongside the castle walls before emerging back onto the coast for the trip towards Bangor.
We leave Bangor and soon we are crossing the Menai straits over onto the Isle of Anglesey where Holyhead is located. The Britannia bridge which carries us across used to be of tubular design, but it was rebuilt in the 1970s after being damaged by fire. The redesigned structure now also carries the main A55 road above us.
As we cross the Britannia, the sight of Thomas Telford’s old road suspension bridge (1826) reminds me that even before the railway, the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin could be reached from London. Stagecoaches followed the turnpike road created by Telford in the 1820s; it is still with us today as the A5, starting back in London as the Edgware Road.
The last part of the trip sees us crossing Anglesey before finally slowing down for the causeway to Holy Island. Bang on time, we pull into Holyhead. I count about 25 people alighting from the 10-coach train. Back in the day, we would have walked onto a ferry moored alongside the cavernous old station, and within 30 minutes the boat would have been on its way. Things have changed.
MV W B Yeats
There is quite a walk from the train to the foot passenger check-in building. Nevertheless, the building itself is modern, clean and welcoming. Both Irish Ferries and Stena line operate from here; the signs covering the building are divided between the green colours of the former and the white of the latter. The place is not surprisingly deserted. A few people arrive on another train from Manchester, but even by the time we are allowed through security 30 minutes later there are still only about 40 of us.
Eventually, as we are all marshalled onto an ancient single decker bus, I realise that we are still a long way from the ship. The vast size of the modern ferries prevents them getting anywhere near the station, and in any case most passengers are now in cars. The bus follows a winding course past empty car parks until it climbs the ramp and enters the car deck of the MV W B Yeats.
We alight from the bus and then climb the centre stairwells of the ship until we reach the main hospitality deck with its restaurants and lounges. I had been expecting the ship to be busy with car drivers, but in fact there are very few people on board. I later learn we have sailed with just 150 passengers on a vessel capable of carrying almost 2,000.
The W B Yeats (51,388 tons / launched in 2018) is not the regular ship assigned to this route; for most of the year the MV Ulysses (50,938 tons / launched in 2000) shuttles back and forth twice in every 24 hours. She is in dry-dock at the moment undergoing yearly maintenance and this ship is deputising. I go for a wander around, impressed by the ship but still surprised at how deserted it is. Irish Ferries like to name their vessels after Irish literary themes and the whole ship is covered with marvellous little quotations from Yeats himself.
We are soon underway, and I go out on to the promenade deck to get a view of Anglesey as it recedes into the distance. There is one hell of a wind up and as we get further away from land the sea becomes choppy. I don’t linger outside; after a tasty burger in the main restaurant, I head up to the observation bar right at the front of the ship.
The bar is almost totally deserted; the bar tender seems bored, so we chat for a while. He is from Gdansk, and I talk about my trip last year to his wonderful city. He tells me that the W B Yeats is normally on the overnight route from Dublin to Cherbourg. This explains why there are a couple of decks of passenger cabins and why all the plug sockets on board are of the continental design.
I explain my plan to visit Northern Ireland and he tells me that these ships undergo annual maintenance there. It is actually one of the few times he gets the chance to go ashore; “Belfast is a wonderful city for a party”. In fact, Ulysses is currently undergoing maintenance in Belfast herself, he explains.
It is quite a cool feeling sitting all alone in the vast observation bar, reading a book and nursing a pint of Guinness. The sea is pretty rough but generally the passage is quite smooth. Just occasionally we crash down on the waves with a loud bang.
The three hours go quickly. I watch the sun set and then the lights of Dublin appear on the horizon. The announcements about disembarking begin and soon we are pulling up alongside the quay. This time we use a passenger exit on the side of the ship to disembark from. The customs check takes seconds and within ten minutes of leaving the ship I am standing in front of the double decker bus that takes passengers on the short trip to Dublin city centre. The whole journey has been effortless and so much more pleasant than flying.
Train 2 – The Enterprise
I spend a quiet evening in a “pub with rooms” close to Connolly station. The next morning, I am up by 8:30 and taking a quick walk around the block. This is my fourth trip to Dublin and each time I come I promise myself I will return, stay longer and explore more of Ireland. So far, though, I never have. But now, having discovered the SailRail ticket, I wouldn’t need much persuading to use it again soon.
Starting life as Amiens Street and opening in 1844, Connolly station was the principal terminus in Dublin for the Great Northern Railway, the company that originally dominated the north of Ireland. Today it handles services along the East Coast, both north and south, and trains to Sligo. It is also a stop on the suburban DART electric railway and, since I last visited, they have opened a stop on the LUAS tram system here too.
Connolly’s old facade has been preserved but there is a new entrance too. Appropriately, it is covered with a marketing campaign for trips to Northern Ireland. At 9am the station is alive with commuters and the sandwich shops and cafes seem to be doing great business. I have a wander around; it feels warm and welcoming.
The Enterprise service is shown as departing from Platform 2, but it is running a little late inbound from Belfast. I follow the signs to a little anteroom, the Belfast Lounge, where a lot of people are already waiting to board. Nearby, along the walls are display boards charting the 75 year history of the train from its inception to the present day.
The train, as the boards explain, has been a key economic and social link between the two cities over the years. It was brought in to compete when Aer Lingus launched their Dublin to Belfast flights back in 1947. The new service, originally non-stop, did away with the on-train border checks and delays that had been a feature of intra-Ireland travel since partition twenty five years earlier.
The train was inaugurated in the steam era but soon changed to diesel traction in the early 1950s. It then went through various progressive changes of equipment from multiple units to locomotive-hauled coaches on to the push-pull trains that are used today. Although created by the Great Northern Railway, since 1958 the Enterprise has been operated as a separate brand shared between the nationalised railway operators of the Republic and Northern Ireland.
There are several photographs of the different dining cars used over the years in the display. Apart from during COVID, they have always had catering on the Enterprise, but as the poster explains, at one time the variance in customs requirements meant that they needed a different spirits cabinet for each side of the border.
The train suffered a lot of disruption during “the troubles,” it was the victim of frequent bomb threats and inspired the formation of a campaign group, “the Peace Train Organisation”. At one point it was also nicknamed the “contraceptive train” as it was used by Dubliners to get supplies in Belfast that were not easily obtainable at home.
Our service eventually arrives at the platform; after watching the incoming passengers leave the station, we are allowed to board. Since 1997 the Enterprise has employed American-built Class 201 locomotives which are usually positioned at the Belfast end. They operate in push-pull mode with sets of French De Dietrich coaches which feature a driving trailer at the Dublin end. Although some similar trains still ply the Dublin-Cork route, these are now among the last remaining locomotive-hauled services in Ireland.
The Enterprise coaches have been refurbished recently and now appear in a grey livery with red and purple banding. Inside the freshly renewed seats are smart and comfortable, if a little purple. The train fills up pretty quickly and in my carriage at least, most of the seats are soon taken. I have just paid about 14 Euros for my trip to Belfast, and it seems at these reasonable prices they are attracting custom.
We depart on time at 09:30 and head through the suburbs of Dublin until we are skirting the coast. Initial progress is painfully slow but eventually we pick up some speed. Despite some 90 mph running sections, the schedule, 2 hours 15 minutes for the just over 100 miles, is a little relaxed. The ride is nice and smooth though; the lack of an underfloor engine is a nice contrast to yesterday.
After half an hour we slow for the first of two stops in the Republic: Drogheda at 10:06. A few people get off here and a few more get on. Soon we are crossing the magnificent viaduct almost 100 foot above the River Boyne, with spectacular views of the city on one side and the river flowing out to sea on the other.
They have a full breakfast on the train in first class and there is a buffet for the rest of us. I get a coffee; “you can pay in Euros or Pounds, sir.” The train manager is super friendly and very efficient; at each stop she is up and down the carriage directing people who have just joined to the last few remaining empty seats.
There is another stop at Dundalk at 10:27, almost an hour out of Dublin and then the train heads towards the border with Northern Ireland. The border itself is imperceptible unless, like me, you are following on Google Maps. Yet almost as soon as we cross, I look out to the adjacent roads and see that they now have the familiar UK traffic signs with their speed limits in miles per hour.
The scenery changes too; it becomes a bit hillier with views of the mountains in the distance. We make an extended stop at Newry until 10:48 and then stop again at Portadown at 11:10. The carriage is now completely full. I am surprised to see that the Enterprise only runs every two hours; a total of just 8 daily trains in each direction.
Finally, we start passing through the suburbs of Belfast and, bang on time at 11:45, come to a halt at Lanyon Place. I am very impressed with the train, it might not be fast, but the affordable price, comfortable ride and super-friendly staff go a long way to make up for that. Hopefully it will attract more investment in the future, speed up a bit and continue to prosper over the next 75 years.
Train 3 – To Great Victoria Street
Lanyon Place used to be called Belfast Central but that old name was a bit misleading, the city’s other main station, Great Victoria Street, is probably a lot more central. It is where my hotel is located anyway, so after checking with the platform staff that my ticket from the Enterprise is still valid, I hop on another train.
The train is a Spanish-built CAF Diesel Multiple Unit. These 3 or 4 car trains now form all the services on Northern Ireland Railways. They are operated in tandem with the buses under the common brand Translink. I am amused to hear that all the platform announcements on Translink use the same, slightly annoying, female voice as the rest of the UK, even though the system here is nationalised and nominally separate from Great Britain.
The train leaves Lanyon Place. My exploration of Belfast is about to begin….
Continue to Part 2 – Belfast
Background to the History of Railways in Ireland