Irish Railway Companies

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 some of the companies that played key roles in Ireland’s railway history, It is illustrated mainly by photographs of the exhibits at the Ulster Transport Museum, 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.

Model at Cultra

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.

Great Victoria Street (GNR (I))

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.


Above, 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.
Early DW&WR carriage at Cultra

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.
C & L – “Kathleen” at Cultra

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.

Great Southern Railways – No. 800 at Cultra

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.  CIE began to introduced diesel locomotives in the early 1950s, but as road competition increased, the 1950s and 1960s saw major cutbacks, 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 within the country’s borders.   Since 1987, trains have been operated by CIE’s subsidiary Iarnród Éireann (IE) and as 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 the MR to the London Midland Scottish Railway (LMS), because of grouping in Britain in 1923.  The 1930s saw the opening of the   Greenisland Loop Line (incorporating Bleach Green Junction with its modernist bridges) on the NCC system which enabled trains to travel from Belfast to Londonderry without reversal.

Bleach Green Junction opened 1934

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.

The UTA was an early adoptor of Diesel Rail Cars

Particularly harsh was the closure of lines in the west and around the border area with a significant chunk of Northern Ireland 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.

Early 1970s NIR Class 101 Locomotive (Cultra)

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 existing 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.


More information on preserved Irish steam locomotives – here

Sources / Further Reading

Main Sources – 

The following are in my personal collection –

  • Fergus Mulligan, “One Hundred and Fifty Years of Irish Railways” –  (Belfast: Appletree Press 1990)
  • Michael C Baker, “Irish Railways – The Last 60 Years” – (Stamford: Key Books 2021)

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