How the bus boom of the 50s and 60s all but derailed our train network

The old Northern Counties Committee line which was saved despite Sir Henry Benson's closure recommendation
The old Northern Counties Committee line which was saved despite Sir Henry Benson's closure recommendation

As Ulsterbus celebrates its 50th anniversary, GRAEME COUSINS looks at the downgrading of the rail network in Northern Ireland during the 1950s and 1960s while a local railway society gives its opinion on the impact the bus network had on railways in the Province

When the bus network in Northern Ireland began to expand, the Province’s railways suffered.

A vintage Ulsterbus which arrived at a time when the road network was receiving a lot of investment

A vintage Ulsterbus which arrived at a time when the road network was receiving a lot of investment

Even before Ulsterbus was born in 1967, railways across Northern Ireland were being shut down by the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) as more and more emphasis was put on developing the road infrastructure and in turn bus services.

1950 was to be the year the levee broke for railways in Northern Ireland. Almost all of the Belfast and County Down Railway was closed that year, while the UTA also closed the Magherafelt to Kilrea section of Derry Central Railway and the freight-only line from Limavady to Dungiven.

Branch lines were also closed to Cookstown, Draperstown and Limavady. In what was to be a summer to forget for rail users, the narrow gauge lines at Ballycastle, Ballymena and Larne were also finished.

In later years the line between Castlewellan and Newcastle in Co Down was shut down, while large parts of the Great Northern Railway to the west of the Province were shut down leaving Co Fermanagh cut off from the rest of Northern Ireland.

It was to get worse in 1963 when the Northern Ireland government acted on some of the recommendations of a report by accountant Sir Henry Benson who suggested the closure of all UTA railways except the Belfast commuter lines to Bangor and Larne and the main line between Belfast and the Republic of Ireland.

He also recommended the closure of both railway lines connecting Belfast to Londonderry which provoked protests from the Maiden City.

In the end the main line via Coleraine was kept while the former Great Northern Railways line via Portadown was closed down.

Some saw the decision as politically motivated as the line which served more unionist areas was the one that was maintained while the closure of the other line saw stations in Dungannon, Omagh and Strabane closed down.

Portadown and Armagh Railway Society reflected on the decline in the rail network in Northern Ireland.

They said: “Some 20 years after the rail network was so savagely mutilated in 1957, it was said ‘They’ll live to regret their folly, buses can never replace a fast, safe, efficient railway’.

“Today most would wholeheartedly agree, particularly those stuck in peak-hour traffic, in a car or bus.

“In 1967, Ulsterbus and NIR were born. The former, as was the case since the 1960s, was to be the saviour of public transport.

“By comparison, NIR was then a run-down set up, with track in poor condition, dilapidated stations and elderly and unreliable rolling stock.

“We were told, with motorways and better roads, the railways would probably continue to decline and buses develop as ‘kings of public transport’.

“How many in the area, bounded by Portadown, Londonderry, Portrush, Larne, Bangor and Belfast, would honestly agree with that today?

“Public transport has changed radically. Yes, Goldline bus services have been introduced, new more comfortable coaches and buses purchased, but are they really any quicker than trains over recent decades?

“Bus lanes on M1 and M2 have helped a little, but as road traffic continues to grow, sadly the buses get slower, as evidenced by a study of say Londonderry’s Maiden City Flyer and Dungannon services to Belfast, especially at peak hours, where timetables are now having five, 10 and even 15 minutes added to the journey times.

“In rural areas, notably west of the Bann, many Ulsterbus routes would be totally uneconomical if it wasn’t for school children. Hence services are sparse and virtually all cease after 6.30pm.

“When we study rail services in the same areas, the picture is utterly different. It is not just at peak hours when NIR trains are filled to capacity, but at off peak too, and at weekends, when trains are also well patronised.

“We understand NIR now carry more passengers than the pre-1957 system carried, even with their now more truncated network, and it is becoming harder and harder to find a parking space anywhere near a train station.”

The Portadown and Armagh Railway Society blamed politicians for the demise of railways.

They commented: “Our short-sighted politicians of the 50s, 60s and 70s caused this in their misguided stampede to obliterate the rail network, telling us how wonderful our roads would be, as we whizzed along, in our car or bus, carefree and at speed. “Those who live in non rail-served areas, would give their right arm just to have a train service.

“The like of Newtownards and Armagh are obvious areas, the former to overcome growing congestion into Belfast, and the latter to get many more tourists into that beautiful city and take many commuters and students from that southern region of the Province, to work in Belfast, in double quick time.

“It’s obvious – though seemingly not to our politicians – that rail is booming. Building more roads, simply encourages more traffic, more congestion, more accidents and increasing pollution, leaving less room for essential freight traffic and buses for example.

“We must get more traffic off our highways, and at least give buses a better chance.

“Can our politicians not see that railways are a gigantic social benefit, and financial matters will never win where our economy and safety is concerned? Other countries all over Europe and indeed the rest of the UK, see that rail is essential to free up cities and towns and provide fast, safe access from rural areas.

“Why is it that here we think little of spending thousands resurfacing minor roads that carry only half a dozen vehicles daily, yet go ballistic at the idea of spending pragmatically on a few strategic fast and efficient rail links, to places like the International Airport and even continue on to Monaghan and Enniskillen?

“What a difference it would make to a journey that is frequently laborious by ever congested roads.”