Irish Railways

A lot has been written over the years about the history of Ireland’s Railways. 

This modest attempt aims to provide a basic introduction to the companies that played key roles in Ireland’s railway history, an overview of post-1950 motive power and rolling stock policy and information on preserved Irish steam locomotives.  It is illustrated  mainly by photographs of the exhibits at the RSPI museum at Whitehead and the Ulster Transport Museum at Cultra.

The Growth of the Network  (1834-1920)

The first railway in Ireland opened in 1834 just 4 years after the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The Dublin and Kingstown Railway (D&KR) linked Dublin with the port town of Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) about 6 miles away.

The network grew quickly and as in the rest of the United Kingdom several private companies were formed by Act of Parliament to build lines in different parts of the country, eventually merging to form larger undertakings. A significant difference with Great Britain was the level of direct and indirect Government assistance provided to build lines in areas where private enterprise alone could not have done.

Although the first line had been built to the British standard gauge of 4ft 8.5in (1435mm), it was later converted to 5ft 3in (1600mm) gauge* which was subsequently mandated by the UK Board of Trade and used for most of the network. Nevertheless, a substantial 3ft (914mm) narrow gauge network of lines also developed in remoter areas most notably in County Donegal.

Despite the slight difference in gauge, Irish railways were heavily influenced technically by Britain, with signalling following British practice, and many locomotives and carriages being produced by the independent British manufacturers such as Beyer Peacock of Manchester.   Ireland also produced its own locomotives from the works of the various railway companies, notable Inchicore on the Great Southern & Western and Dundalk on the Great Northern (Ireland).  Several chief mechanical engineers who began work in Ireland also worked in Great Britain and vice versa.

The network reached its peak size of 3,500 route miles in 1920; the map below (Public Domain) shows it in 1906 rapidly approaching this point.

Map_Rail_Ireland_Viceregal_Commission or

*Known as “Irish Gauge” it was also used later in parts of Australia, notably Victoria.

The Railway Companies at Partition (1921)

Almost coinciding with the completion of the network, and destined to have a major impact on its future, was the division of the country in 1921 into the Irish Free State (from 1937, the Republic of Ireland) and Northern Ireland which would remain part of the United Kingdom.

Below, the same 1906 network map has been superimposed with the names of the significant companies existing in 1921 showing their approximate location in respect to one another.  The railways whose names are in green were wholly inside the new Irish Free State, those shown in red were wholly inside Northern Ireland, whilst those shown in orange had operations on both sides of the new border.


The three dominant companies wholly in the Irish Free State:

  • Great Southern & Western Railway (GSW&R) – Incorporated in 1844 and representing almost a third of Ireland’s total route mileage.  Its main line was Dublin to Cork but it dominated much of the South West.
  • Midland Great Western Railway (MGWR) – Incorporated in 1845 and operating around 500 route miles of track, the third largest network in Ireland. Its main line went west from Dublin to Sligo and Galway.
  • Dublin and South Eastern Railway (DSER) had roots back in 1846 but had been known by other titles, including Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway (DW&WR) until 1906.  The company’s main operation was the east coast line south from Dublin to Wexford. This route incorporated the country’s first railway line, the D&KR, taken over in 1856.

Also of note in the Free State:

  • Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway (CB&SCR) dating from 1849 operated around 100 miles of railways in West Cork.
  • Cavan & Leitrim Railway (CLR) a 34 mile long 3ft gauge line in the north west.

The two dominant companies wholly in Northern Ireland:

  • Northern Counties Committee (NCC) created in 1903 when Britain’s Midland Railway (MR) took over the Belfast and Northern Counties Railway (BNCR), a company that had started as the Belfast and Ballymena Railway in 1848.  The NCC’s main line was the coastal route from Belfast to Derry / Londonderry.
  • Belfast and County Down Railway (BCDR) – first opening in 1848 the company operated lines to the south east of Belfast, wholly within Northern Ireland,  predominantly to Bangor and Newcastle.

The companies that operated on both sides of the border:

  • The Great Northern Railway Ireland (GNR(I)) was created in 1876 as the result of a merger of three smaller companies.  It was second only to the GS&WR in the whole country and dominated the northern part of Ireland. It also had numerous main lines crossing the new border including the main route connecting Dublin with Belfast.
  • The Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway (DNGR) was owned by Britain’s London North Western Railway (LNWR). Constructed as a link to the ferry port at Greenore, it was only 26 miles long but managed to intersect the new international border.
  • The Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway (SL&NCR) operated a single main line with no branches across the border linking Enniskillen with Sligo.
  • The GNR(I) and NCC had combined to manage the County Donegal Railways Joint Committee (CDRJC) which ran a 100-mile network of 3ft gauge lines (formerly owned by the Donegal Railway Company (DRC) across the border into Country Donegal.  The railway was an early adopter of petrol railcars.

Irish Free State / Republic of Ireland Companies (1922-2022)

The companies whose lines lay wholly within the Free State became the main constituents of Great Southern Railways (GSR) which was formed in 1924-1925.  That company then operated all lines that lay wholly within the Free State / Irish Republic until 1945.  It was succeeded by Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE) which was formed as a merger between GSR and Dublin United Transport Company.  It began life as a private monopoly but was nationalised in 1950.

As road competition increased, the 1950s and 1960s saw major cutbacks, most notably the closure of most branch lines. The Irish Republic’s Network was gradually reduced to the current 1,700 route miles.  After 1958, with its takeover of former GNR lines (see below) between Dublin and the UK border, CIE finally ran all the trains witihn the country’s borders.   Since 1987, trains have been operated by CIE’s subsidiary Iarnród Éireann (IE) and has the country has grown ever more prosperous, the system has been modernised.

Northern Ireland Companies (1922-2022)

In contrast with the amalgamations in the Irish Free State, the two major railways exclusively serving Northern Ireland, the NCC and BCDR, remained separate from one another until after World War Two.   The only significant change in ownership was the passing of the NCC from Britain’s MR to the London Midland Scottish Railway (LMS), because of grouping in 1923.  The 1930s saw the opening of the   Greenisland Loop Line on the NCC system which enabled trains to travel from Belfast to Londonderry without reversal.

In 1948-9, coinciding with the nationalisation of Britain’s railways,  the two companies became part of the state-run Ulster Transport Authority (UTA). The UTA embarked on a very brutal pruning of lines from the mid-1950s; the network had stretched to 700 miles in 1922 but was now reduced to just over 200.  Particularly harsh was the closure of lines in the west and around the border area with a significant chunk of the country left without rail services.    By the mid-1960s only the main line  from the border with the Irish Republic, the coastal route to Derry/Londonderry, with a short branch to Portrush, and the lines to Bangor and Larne remained.

The UTA was dissolved in 1967 and since then Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) has operated the services.  NIR, which unlike railways in the rest of the UK remains vertically integrated and publicly owned, has been combined with Ulsterbus and trades under the Translink brand.

Cross Border Companies (1922-1960)

The lines extending into the Free State which belonged to companies also operating in Northern Ireland were not absorbed into the GSR in 1922, instead they remained separately owned.  By far the largest of these was the GNR (I) which although having much of its network within Northern Ireland also operated lines across the border, notably the main route from Belfast to Dublin.   The company’s cross-border services were affected by the imposition of customs checks on both sides.  Only with the introduction of the GNR (I)’s Enterprise service in 1947 were the checks moved from the borders to the city terminals.

Even after the arrival of the public CIE and UTA on both sides of the border after 1950, the private GNR (I) soldiered on.  It was finally nationalised in 1953 with both governments becoming involved.  Then in 1958 it was finally broken up and shared between the two state operators.  All its lines south of the border became part of the CIE, whilst those to the north passed to the UTA.  Almost immediately its entire network in the North was closed with only its section of the Belfast-Dublin line remaining. The locomotives and rolling stock were also shared out, with the two public organisations taking on the joint responsibility for the Enterprise cross-border services. A situation that continues to this day.

Elsewhere, the DNGR passed from LNWR to LMS ownership in 1923, but was operated by the GNR (I) from 1933 until it closed in 1951.  The narrow gauge CDJRC system also remained independent but fell into rapid decline after the Second World War and had been completely closed by 1960.  Whilst the SL&NCR also continued to serve both sides of the border and after 1953 became the last privately owned 5ft 3in line in the country, it had closed by 1957.

The Network Today

Although the majority of today’s Irish network is concentrated in the south of the country and mostly incorporates the old GS&WR lines, each of the other five major railways exisiting in 1921 is represented.  Still extant are the MGWR lines to Sligo and Galway, the DSER’s line to Wexford, the GNR(I)’s main line from Dublin to Belfast, the BCDR’s branch to Bangor and the NCC’s coastal route to Derry/Londonderry.


Motive Power and Rolling Stock – CIE and IE (1950-2022)

Following its creation in 1925, the GSR inherited around 500 steam locomotives from its constituent companies.  In its 20 year existence it obtained or built about 60 more, some of these came from British manufacturers but many were produced or assembled at the ex-GS&WR works at Inchicore, Dublin.  Most notable of these were 3 Class 800 express passenger locomotives built in 1939-1940, among the most powerful locomotives built in Ireland.

The lack of locally available coal, a factor that had been highlighted during World War Two,  combined with an ageing Steam locomotive fleet, meant that the CIE was much quicker to switch to diesel than Britain in the 1950s.  Initially it built two locomotives (Class 113) locally at Inchicore in 1950-1 but then obtained 94 (Class 001/201) engines from Britain’s Metropolitan Vickers in 1955.

From the 1960s onwards it began to source in its locomotives from General Motors in the USA / Canada.  The first examples, Classes 121,141 & 181 were limited to speeds under 80mph, but the introduction in 1976 of 18 Class 071s capable of 90mph enabled CIE to speed up services.  The newest locomotives on IE are the 32 GM 201s introduced in 1994-5 and used on key Intercity services as well as the Enterprise to Belfast.   The Irish traction group is dedicated to preserving examples of Ireland’s locomotives.

CIE built or assembled some its early passenger coaches, notably the “laminate coaches” of the mid 1950s, but most of its fleet was assembled from parts obtained from British manufacturers like Park Royal (1955) and Cravens (1963).  Later coaches were imported directly from Britain with Irish equivalents of the BR’s Mk2d and Mk3 coaches being introduced in the 1972 and 1984 respectively.

More recently, IE have completely modernised their coaching fleet with the introduction in 1997 of new rolling stock to be used in combination with the new Class 201 locomotives for the Enterprice.  De Dietrich of France provided four sets of seven cars including a driving van trailer (DVT) to enable the train to operate in push-pull mode.  In 2006 67 new Mk4 Intercity carriages including some DVTs were obtained from CAF in Spain. These predomienantly operate on the Dublin to Cork line again with the Class 201 locomotives.

Diesel railcars (DMUs) introduced between 1950 and 1957 also played a part in the eradication of steam. The first generation trains, some of which were assembled locally, were obtained from British manufacturers AEC and BUT.  In later years some were modified to act as driving trailers on locomotive-hauled services; all had been withdrawn by 1987.

An order of 17 Class 2600 DMUs from Tokyu, Japan in 1993 marked the start of a second generation of railcar use.  More units followed with 14 trains from Alstom (Class 2700) in 1997, 10 more from Tokyu (Class 2800) in 2000 and 29 from CAF (Class 29000) in 2002.   The delivery of 63 Intercity sets (Class 22000) from Hyundai Rotem between 2007 and 2011 marked a big change from IEs policy away from locomotive-hauled trains on most of its long distance routes.

Finally, the electrification of around 30 miles of suburban lines along the coast  in 1984 gave Dublin its  DART system and Ireland its first Electric Multiple Units (40 Class 8100 obtained from Germany).  The success of the system has led to extra units being obtained between 1999 and 2004.  (5 Class 8200 from Alsthom and 17 Class 8500, 8510 and 8520 from Tokyu).

Motive Power and Rolling Stock – UTA and NIR (1950-2022)

Like the CIE, the UTA was also quick to dieselise.  With shorter distances to cover it initally concentrated on DMUs, ordering the same early BUT and AEC DMU designs (some that had been ordered by GNR (I)) were also inherited) as CIE and assembling them all locally.  Additionally, two more types of UTA design, the MED (1951) and MPD (1952) were also ordered. All these first generation DMUs had been withdrawn by 1981.

In 1966 the UTA introduced its first Diesel Electric Multiple Units, eight 3-car Class 70 sets.  The trains eschrewed the underfloor engines of the earlier DMUs and had more powerful units mounted between the cab and passenger saloon.   In 1974 more DEMUS were ordered, this time from British Rail Engineering. The twenty two 3 car Class 80 designs were similar to the Class 70s but utilised the BR Mk2 bodyshell.

The final DMU products from Britain were 9 Class 450s in 1985, based loosley on the BR Sprinter design but incorporating recyled power units from withdrawn Class 70s.    The Class 450s were withdrawn in 2012 with the older Class 80s going in 2017.  Examples of both types are preserved on the heritage Downpatrick and County Down Railway.

The forth and latest generation of DMUs are twenty three Class 3000 3-car units obtained from CAF, Spain in 2004 and 20 Class 4000 3/4 car units also from CAF in 2011.  With the exception of the Enterprise, the two types now handle all of Northern Ireland’s rail passenger services.

Whilst locomotives and coaches had not been part of the initial UTA dieselisation plan, by the late 1960s disatisfaction with DMUs forming the Enterprise cross-border service led NIR to reconsider.  The NIR obtained three (Class 101) diesel electric locomotives from Hunslet in England in 1970.  They operated a relauched Enterprise service hauling rakes of Britsh Rail Mk2b coaches (more Mk2s of varying types followed later).

The original class 101s were withdrawn in 1989.  NIR having obtained three Class 111 locomotives from GM in 1984 (identical to the successful CIE 071 design) as replacements.    The Class 111s remain in service today but were superseded on the Enterprise by NIR’s quota of two Class 201 locomotives in 1995.  The NIR 201s operate in a pool with the IE-owned versions hauling the 28 De Detriech coaches of which half are owned by NIR.

Preserved Steam Locomotives

Although the very last steam train in Northern Ireland didn’t run until 1970, steam was eradicated in the Irish Republic in 1962 eight years earlier than in Great Britain.  This much faster onset of dieselisation compared with Britain, is perhaps one of the reasons why there only a few preserved steam locomotives to be found in either part of Ireland.  Sadly, just nineteen Irish 5ft 3in gauge locomotives have been preserved and only one of them is on permanent display in the Irish Republic.

The only preserved 5ft 3in line in the whole of Ireland is the Downpatrick and County Down Railway (DCDR)  which utilises around three miles of the ex-BCDR Belfast to Newcastle route.  As well as a  fleet of diesels, it operates three of the nineteen remaining steam locomotives.

The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (RPSI) is an Irish railway preservation group which was founded in 1964 and operates both side of the border  It rosters a few of the nine steam locomotives in its care on mainline railtours from both Dublin and Belfast using IE and NIR lines.   It has its main base at Whitehead.

The final location hosting 5ft 3in gauge Irish steam locomotives is the Ulster Transport museum at Cultra which has its collection of six locomotives on static display alongside passenger carriages and goods wagons from the various eras.

Locomotive Lists

Of the nineteen preserved locomotives five are small industrial locomotives which worked in dockyards and factories.  Three are British-built locomotives that can now be found at Cultra or Whitehead, whilst the other two are German-built, originally employed in Irish Sugar factories but now working on the Downpatrick and County Down Railway (DCDR). 

No. Wheel Builder Built Railway Current Location
#1 0-6-0T Robert Stephenson 1891 Londonderry Port Cultra
#3 0-4-0T Hudswell Clarke 1919 Guinness Cultra
#3 0-6-0T Avonside 1928 Londonderry Port Whitehead
#1 0-4-0T Orenstein & Koppel 1934 Irish Sugar DCDR
#3 0-4-0T Orenstein & Koppel   1935 Irish Sugar DCDR

Of the remaining fourteen locomotives, the oldest, an 1847 engine for the GS&WR, is on display at Cork Kent station.  Another GS&WR locomotive is at work on the Downpatrick and County Down Railway (DCDR).  The final twelve are all on display at Cultra or based at Whitehead.

No. Class   Wheel Builder Built Railway Current Location
#36 2-2-2 Bury, Curtis and Kennedy 1847 GSWR Cork Station
#90 90 0-6-0T Inchicore Works 1875 GSWR DCDR
#186 101 0-6-0 Sharp Stewart 1879 GSWR Whitehead
#184 101 0-6-0 Inchicore Works 1880 GSWR Whitehead
#93 JT 2-4-2T Dundalk Works 1895 GNR (I) Cultra
#30 4-4-2T Beyer Peacock 1901 BCDR Cultra
#131 Q 4-4-0 Neilson Reid 1901 GNR (I) Whitehead
#171 S 4-4-0 Beyer Peacock 1913 GNR (I) Whitehead
#15 15 2-6-0 Beyer Peacock 1922 DSER Whitehead
#74 U2 4-4-0 North British 1924 NCC (LMS) Cultra
#85 V 4-4-0 Beyer Peacock 1932 GNR (I) Whitehead
#800 800 4-6-0 Inchicore Works 1939 GSR Cultra
#4 WT 2-6-4T Derby Works 1947 NCC (LMS) Whitehead
Erne Lough 0-6-4T Beyer Peacock 1949 SLNR Whitehead

3ft Gauge Locomotives

A total of fifteen Irish 3ft gauge locomotives of seven different designs remain, although only twelve are still in Ireland.  Some of these locomotives are in active use at some of the heritage 3ft gauge lines north and south of the border.

Two examples of tramway locomotive are preserved, one at Cultra and one in Hull, England, meanwhile five industrial locomotives of two types are also left.  Two, one of each type, work on the heritage Giants Causeway and Bushmills Railway in Northern Ireland, one is displayed at Cultra, one has been exported to Wales and another works on the Stradbally Railway in County Laois.

Builder Type Wheel Built Railway   No. Location
Kitson & Co   0-4-0T 1882 Portstewart Tramway #1 Hull, England
1883 #2 Cultra
Peckett & Sons 0-4-0T 1904 British Aluminium #1 Giants Causeway Rly
1906 #2 Cultra
Andrew Barclay & Sons 1-3 0-4-0T 1949 Peat Board #1 Stradbally Rly
#2 Talyllyn, Wales
#3 Giants Causeway Rly

Eight locomotives that used to work on passenger carrying lines were saved.  Two of them used to work on the Cavan & Leitrim Railway (CLR), one of which is now at Cultra whilst the other was exported to the USA.  A heritage operation has now restored part of the CLR and efforts are being made to repatriate the locomotive in America.

Heritage operations at the Tralee and Dingle and West Clare also account for two more locomotives.  The final four engines all worked on the County Donegal Railway Joint Committee network.  Two are now employed on the heritage Foyle Valley Railway in Northern Ireland, one is on display in Donegal and one can be seen at Cultra.

Builder Type Wheel Built Railway   No. Location
Stephenson 1-8 4-4-0T 1887 CLR #2 Cultra
#3 USA
Hunslet 5 2-6-2T 1892 Tralee and Dingle Rly #5 Tralee and Dingle Rly
Dubs 5 0-6-2T 1892 West Clare Rly #5 West Clare Rly
Naysmith Wilson 5 & 5A 2-6-4T 1907 CDRJC #4 Foyle Valley Rly
1907 #5 Donegal
1907 #6 Foyle Valley Rly
1912 #2 Cultra

Geographical Distribution of Irish Steam Locomotives

Map showing the approximate geographical distribution of the remaining nineteen 5ft 3in gauge steam locomotives  (shown in red) and the remaining twelve 3ft gauge engines (shown in green). Out of a total of thirty one, twenty six are in Northern Ireland, with nineteen at either Whitehead or Cultra.

800px-Ireland_rail_network_sb.svg - Copy

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