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.
Affectionately known as the “Swilly”, the railways origins lay in the need for improved connection between the City of Derry and areas of north Donegal. At a time when movement by steamer was often quicker than road, the link with steamer services was a factor, as was the development of the reclamation embankments near Burnfoot which enclosed some 3,000 acres of farmland. In 1863 a liner was opened from Derry via Burnfoot to Farland Point across the Trady embankment. A junction between the embankment and Burnfoot at Tooban provided for a line to Buncrana, opened in 1864. Both these lines were built to the broad gauge 5’3” standard. The steamer services proved incompatible with the rail timetable and the Farland line was not a success, closing as early as 1866.
A proposal to link the growing town of Letterkenny to Derry came in the 1880s, with the idea of a narrow gauge line from Letterkenny to Newtoncunningham and across the Trady embankment along the course of the failed Farland Point line, meeting the broad gauge Buncrana line at the isolated station of Tooban with no road access. The inconvenience of mixed gauge and arguments in favour of 3-foot gauge systems saw conversion of the Derry to Buncrana line to narrow gauge in April 1885.
The further development of the railway was much influenced by the Congested Districts Act of 1891, which sought to improve the lot of areas where the land was deemed too poor to support the indigenous population, hence rendering the area in such terms as “congested”. Extensions were proposed from Buncrana to Carndonagh in Inishowen, and from Letterkenny to the fishing village of Burtonport in the far north-west of Donegal. The Carndonagh line was opened in 1901 and the Burtonport line, which for much of its long and isolated course perversely avoided the concentrations of population in the area, in 1903. This gave the Swilly a total of some 99 miles of operational line.
Unsurprisingly these two extensions struggled and the Carndonagh line succumbed as soon as 1935. The company had, however, foreseen the difficulties for railway operation as roads and vehicles on them improved and was growing its fleet of buses to be able to take over its closed railway services. More surprising was the survival of the epic Burtonport link and also the use by the Swilly of some of the largest and most sophisticated narrow gauge locomotives of the time. Favourites on the Burtonport line were the only two narrow gauge tender locomotives in the British Isles, of large 4-8-0 wheel arrangement, whose capacity made them well able for the long journey and steep grades. The company also had two giant 4-8-4 tanks locomotives.
The Burtonport line hung on as far as Gweedore, after local protests against the plans for closure, until 1947 when it was cut back to Letterkenny. The remaining lines from Derry to Buncrana and Letterkenny closed in October 1953. Following this the company’s fleet of buses and lorries took over the passenger routes and freight services and continued its long tradition of transport in Donegal as The Lough Swilly Railway Company right up until its recent demise in 2014.
Carriages were old fashioned, some lasting the full life of the railway. At the end, passenger services could be confined to travelling in one of the compartments of a goods brake van on a goods train. The Swilly never moved to the development of railcars. This and its ready fleet of buses probably accounts for the earlier cessation of the Swilly railway operations compared with the County Donegal.