The tale of the Lough Swilly Railway that halted back in 1953

AT 2.15pm on August 8, 1953 a railway conductor in Letterkenny blew his whistle and signalled the departure of the last ever Lough Swilly Railway train to head for Londonderry.

The final train was hauling 14 wagons of cattle and showed up in the city 50 minutes late. But, as it was the last train, it didn't really matter.

A city newspaper at the time reported: "Bob Turner was the driver with Paddy Clifford as fireman. The guard, Mr Daniel McFeeley, or anyone else did not call out 'Next stop Derry'. Everyone knew that the next stop would be the last stop- the last ever."

The Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company (The L& LSR) or as it was, and still is referred to, 'The Swilly' was incorporated in June 1853. Initially planned as the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company when an application for incorporation was filed in 1852, the idea came after the idea of constructing a canal between the two inlets, the company opened its first line, a standard gauge link between the city and Farland Point on New Year's eve, 1863.

A branch line into Buncrana followed in 1864, with much of the Farland Point link being closed in 1866. An extension to Letterkenny was constructed in 1883 and the network was converted to narrow gauge in 1885.

The company owners were the McFarland family, unionist stalwarts at Londonderry Corporation and at the Northern Ireland Parliament

The rolling stock, as with all rail companies to this day, required maintenance, repair and improvement.

In 1947, Herbie Burns of Steelstown Village left Ballyarnett School. He was due to begin an apprenticeship as a Coachbuilder with The Swilly when he was stricken by a bout of Scarlet fever and spent a few weeks in the Waterside Fever Hospital on Glendermott Road.

"I knew what time it was in the morning when I heard the bells ringing at the Good Shepherd's Laundry across the road," he said.

Now in his 77th year, Herbie Burns still cuts an imposing figure and obviously as a young man had the strength required to tackle the labour intensive work of a Coachbuilder.

The Swilly's repair depot was based in Pennyburn, across the road from the church. And, Herbie cycled each day from his Steelstown home, staring at 8am and finishing at 5.30pm.

Herbie told the Sentinel that whilst there was an hour long lunch break, there were no tea breaks.

"Well, there were no official tea breaks at least," he said. "There were unofficial tea breaks. We would have taken turns watching out for Superintendent Napier. And we would have a warning if we had been caught," he continued.

Herbie Burns recalled how he served his time with Bobby Barr, father of well known Waterside man, Glenn Barr whom he also remembered ran Clooney Rovers football team.

"Bobby was one decent man. I spent many times visiting him in King Street. He had been gassed during the First World War," he said.

Apprenticeships could not begin until the age of 16- so Herbie was at The Swilly for two years before his five year training programme began for his life repairing carriages, lorries and buses for the company.

"There were about 70 people in the two workshops and joinery shops. We reboarded and resleeved buses. The skill levels were so high that the men there could actually rebuild engines and send the vehicles back out on the road. The blacksmiths in the yard could more or less make anything required," said Herbie.

An integral transport service in the entire north western corridor between Londonderry and Donegal the railway suffered a tragedy still remembered to this day by older members of the community.

Disaster occurred on the night of January 30, 1925 at the Owencarrow Viaduct in County Donegal. Winds of up to 120 mph derailed carriages of the train off the viaduct causing it to partially collapse. The roof of a carriage was torn off causing four people to be thrown to their deaths. The four killed were, Phillip Boyle and his wife Sarah, Una Milligan and Neil Duggan. Five people were seriously injured. The remains of the viaduct can be seen today from the road which carries on from the Barnes Gap on the road to Cresslough.

Whilst the trains stopped rolling in 1953, it was far from the end for 'The Swilly'. As far back as 1929 the company had begun to acquire buses across Donegal. Rapid expansion of these operations followed and it quickly entered profitability in the early 1930s.

The opening of freight services also helped to boost the company.

Of course this development proved invaluable in providing a steady stream of work for the men at the Depot in Pennyburn.

The company still exists today, providing operating passenger bus services, freight services, holiday tour services and still run most of the school bus services across Donegal. The services are still regarded as crucial to the elderly and rural population in Donegal.

There is still an office presence at the Foyle Street Depot and at Letterkenny.

Herbie Burns said: "The buses were very busy. When I was there, it was just around the time when bus tours were really beginning to take off.

"The buses were even queued up to take the factory girls over the border in the evenings after work and back again for three of fours hours or they would stop off at Fahan for a swim. All in all it was a very happy place to work in."