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A brief history of Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway.

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.

For more information about the Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway you can:

  • Visit the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre where 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 Londonderry & Lough Swilly 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. There are not as many publications dedicated to “The Swilly” as to the neighbouring County Donegal Railway but those currently available are listed on this site with current prices and we shall be pleased to mail order to those who cannot visit us. Currently new copies of the “Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway – A Visitors Guide” are available in the shop for counter sales or our online shop. Occasionally second hand copies of the classic E M Patterson “The Lough Swilly Railway” are available. The only colour film known to exist of the Swilly, showing the Burtonport line, is part of the contents of Irish Railways Volume 3 DVD on our sales list.

Copyright © 2014, CDRRL. Created by Tony Mc Guire