Donegal Railway
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A Brief History of The County Donegal Railway Joint Committee.

The County Donegal Railway was the largest narrow gauge railway system in the British Isles, although it began its existence in the form of the Irish 5’3” broad gauge.

The first line to open was the Finn Valley Railway from Strabane to Stranorlar in September 1863 to 5’3” gauge. Strabane had already been reached by the Londonderry and Enniskillen Railway in1847.

Proposals were then made over the next few years for an extension from Stranorlar to Donegal Town, but this time in 3-foot gauge, experience in Antrim having led promoters to feel this was a cheaper option both for construction and operation. Despite this funds were hard to obtain and the railway was opened initially to Lough Eske Station, in the Townland of Druminnin, in1882, and extended in to Donegal Town in 1889.

The next twenty years saw the peak of construction of the narrow gauge lines, from Donegal Town to Killybegs in 1893, and from Stranorlar to Glenties in 1895. Increasing problems with transshipment at the mixed gauge station in Stranorlar plus difficult relations over sharing the last part of the Enniskillen line into Strabane led to the decision to convert the Finn Valley line to narrow gauge. This regauging took place, almost miraculously, over a weekend in July 1894. It is hard to believe such a smooth operation could take place today.

Although it resulted in duplication of rail routes from Strabane to Derry, a narrow gauge line was opened from Strabane to Derry on the east side of the River Foyle in 1900, a branch from Donegal town to Ballyshannon was opened in 1905, and finally the last of the Irish narrow gauge lines, the branch from Strabane to Letterkenny was opened in 1909. This brought the total mileage to 125 miles. While other lines were proposed, no more were built in Donegal. Already there had been some financial difficulties, particularly in supporting the new extensions, and this led to the railway being operated from 1906 by a joint committee, with some support from the Great Northern Railway (Ireland) and the Midland Railway of Britain.

The heyday of narrow gauge railway opening was now over and while many of the other Irish lines lived out a fairly short and somewhat impoverished existence, The County Donegal survived until 1947 without any closures. This was in good part due to the General Manager from 1910 to 1943, Henry Forbes, who introduced many economies, not least of which was diesel railcar operation for most passenger trains.

The first closure was to passenger services on the Glenties branch in 1947, followed by complete closure in 1952. The County Donegal Railway’s line to Derry closed at the end of 1954, bar one school special in June 1955. The other lines survived until the end of 1959. Despite closure over 55 years ago, a good deal of the railway’s locomotives, railcars and rolling stock has survived in various museums, including ours.

For more information about the County Donegal Railway you can:

  • Visit the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre where we have examples of the rolling stock on show which visitors can actually enter. Wallboards in the museum give the full history of the railway, its stations and the course of the line, locomotives, railcars and rolling stock. Our shop allows the purchase of specialist books about the railway, and numerous souvenirs such as original tickets, pictures/photos and postcards.

  • The Donegal Railway Heritage Centre also has the world’s largest digitised collection of photos of the County Donegal Railway and provides easy access to these for visitors via a touch screen device.

  • Purchase from us one or more of the publications or DVDs dedicated to the railway covering its history, rolling stock, life around it and the country through which it ran. All those available are listed on our online shop with current prices and we would be happy to post out orders to those who cannot visit us.

Copyright © 2014, CDRRL. Created by Tony Mc Guire