The Great Northern Railway

The railway age in County Tyrone lasted for 107 years from 1858 to 1965 and that main line from Portadown to Derry via Dungannon and Omagh came to be known by generations of railway users and operatives as the “Derry Road”. For over a century this track was the most important railway route in Ulster and the little intermediate stations at Annaghmore, Vernersbridge, Trew and Moy, Donaghmore, Pomeroy, Carrickmore, Sixmilecross and Beragh were among the aristocracy of railway centres, daily witness to mainline express trains, local services and evening and night goods trains. For over a century the railways were ingrained into the lives of the people: local trips, excursions, “emigration trains” in hard times, visitors and even our most basic goods arrived or departed courtesy of the railway. The “Derry Road”, which had seemed among the most permanent of Irish railway routes and survived a century of social, economic and political upheaval, was brought to a premature end by government in 1965.

Derry bound goods train in Dungannon StationThe line was originally built in two sections by the highly-successful Ulster Railway Company: Portadown to Dungannon, opened in 1858, and Dungannon to Omagh, opened in 1861. both sections presented formidable engineering difficulties for the engineers and the 800 construction navvies, notably the crossing of the River Blackwater at Vernersbridge with five spans each fifty-seven feet wide; the boring of Dungannon tunnel at a cost of £20,000 to appease Lord Northland, who refused to allow “the iron monster belching smoke” to be seen in his grounds and, not least, the rock cutting on the approach to the line’s summit at 571 feet above sea level in the Sperrin foothills close to Carrickmore. As the navvies toiled on cuttings and embankments, stone masons were hard at work on the bridges which were beautifully constructed of dressed stone, mainly from Carland quarry outside Dungannon. Many of these bridges still stand as monuments to the skills of the engineers and craftsmen. Most of the original railway buildings are also reasonably intact, most notably at Trew and Moy where the Hughes family have effected a striking and sensitive restoration project. Two of the intermediate stations, at Vernersbridge and Sixmilecross, were built at the behest of the landlord, William Verner of Churchill, and clearly obvious at Vernersbridge is evidence how the architectural style deviates considerably from the other station buildings on the line.

Unlike the neighbouring Ulster Canal, the Portadown-Omagh  Railway was an instant commercial success, with receipts of £400 per mile in 1862. In the same year 120,000 passengers travelled, 70,000 of those in the cheapest third-class despite relatively primitive conditions. In addition, local newspapers began to advertise day excursions to the seaside, to Belfast and Armagh and even to the national capital Dublin. There were also advertisements for products hither to unheard of which arrived courtesy of the railway. Local industries and commercial activities also benefited from the coming of the “Derry Road” since the railway company had a policy of encouraging such economic activity, even to the extent of providing private rail links to the main line and timetabling special trains. The famous Moy Fair always benefited from such a monthly “special”.

World War 1(1914-1918) marked a definite dividing line in the history of the railway, bringing to an end its period of relatively unchallenged supremacy in transport. The arrival of motorised road transport in the 1920’s and the severe economic depression in the period between the two world wars led to a decline in both passenger and freight transport. For many railway passengers the highlight of these declining years were the “specials” to places like Bundoran and Warrenpoint and also to sporting events in Ulster and further afield. World War 2 (1939-1945) proved to be a temporary respite in the period of decline with the movement of troops and munitions and the now infamous “smuggling trains”. After the war old problems persisted and a series of closures effected by the new, road-orientated Ulster Transport Authority (U.T.A) in the 1950’s meant that by 1958 the “Derry Road” was the only railway route left open west of the River Bann.

In 1962 the Benson Report, compiled at the request of the Stormont Government, recommended the closure of the Portadown – Derry line and the U.T.A did not hesitate to implement the recommendation. Local anger was increased by the announcement that the east-coast line to Derry would remain open. In February 1965 the final closure took effect. The lifting of the track and sale of the land in the winter of 1966/1967 completed the final chapter in the history of railways locally. However, despite the ravages of the intervening half century much evidence of a once-great enterprise still remains in the form of embankments, cuttings, bridges and station buildings.

Courtesy of D. Woods

To read more about the Great Northern Railway see Dúiche Neill No: 5