It all began in November 1990 when Joe Carroll, a Dubliner working in the fishing industry in Donegal sought employment opportunities outside the fishing trade. The local FÁS officer suggested he carry out some historical research into the County Donegal Railway. This led Joe to investigate the possibility of restoring a suitable length of track for steam train operations. A public meeting to assess local interest attracted some 60 people and from this, the South Donegal Railway Restoration Society was formed in January 1991.
A committee was formed – the membership of which changed quite a bit over the early years – and a recruitment drive saw membership numbers steadily increase, among those, quite a number of enthusiastic members from the UK. Two UK branches of the Society were started – one in the London area by Steve Flanders, the other in the Birmingham area by John Seward. The Committee set to work to achieve its objective of restoring a section of the former CDR line to steam operation. Joe had done some early work on seeing what might be available in terms of steam engines to work the line. He approached the Belfast Transport Museum regarding the possible availability of CDR stock in their hands but was met with a polite refusal. Through an agent in the UK, he was advised of the availability of a Polish metre gauge steam engine which could be supplied re-gauged to three foot. But the real “scoop” was the acquisition of Class 5 No 5 Drumboe on long-term loan from the North West of Ireland Railway Society (NWIRS) and the Foyle Valley Museum. This was one of the engines which had lain, together with an array of CDR rolling stock and equipment, at Strabane, following purchase by Dr Ralph Cox at auction following closure of the line. The stock was stored at Strabane awaiting collection and transport to the US but this never materialised and when the Great Northern Railway closed in 1964, and the station was abandoned, the CDR stock fell foul of the elements and vandals. In 1987, what remained was threatened by the rebuilding of Strabane and the two engines were rescued by the NWIRS and stored in Pennyburn, Derry.
The agreement for the long-term loan of Drumboe was signed in early April 1991 and on the 20th April the engine which had hauled the last passenger train on the CDR passed through Stranorlar once again, albeit on a low loader, led by the Twin Towns Youth Band! She was stored in a builder’s yard in Balleybofey. The Committee next surveyed possible sites for track laying. Ultimately, two options were considered – a stretch of approx. nine miles in the Barnesmore Gap and a second, of approximately eight miles, along the banks of Lough Finn at Fintown. The majority verdict was in favour of Barnesmore Gap, as the most economically viable option. Two dissenting voices resigned and formed a separate group to undertake the development of the Fintown project. Later in the year, Society member (and future chairman) Dave Bell, from Letterkenny, located two former CDR vehicles – Brake/3rd Coach No 28 and the passenger section of railcar No 15, in use as holiday homes in Dunfanaghy. These were obtained for the Society and were moved to Donegal Town in the summer of 1992. 1992 saw the first invitation for the Society to attend a large Model Railway Exhibition – the International Model Railway Exhibition (IMREX) in London and a first publication – Through the Hills of Donegal – appearing. Work began on the restoration of Coach 28 with FÁS providing labour and local businesses providing materials. The Barnesmore project was, however, beginning to experience some difficulties. The original plan of the committee was to reinstate the track in three stages – 1) Meenglas to Croaghonagh (2 miles), 2) Croaghonagh to Derg Bridge (2.8 miles and 3) Derg Bridge to Keadue (4.8 The Donegal Railway Restoration Project Page 2 of 1 miles). Conscious of the need to start laying track to maintain the current level of support, the decision was made to commence with the second phase. But by the year’s end, the grant application to Bord Fáilte had received the green light with a verbal agreement to provide £800,000 (half the projected cost) provided matching funds were found by the Society
Early 1993 saw the incorporation of the South Donegal Railway Company, which would undertake the construction and operation of the railway on behalf of the SDRRS. The Board of Directors of the Company launched a Loan Stock issue, with a target of £200,000. Uptake proved slow, preventing progress, and shortage of funds slowed progress on the restoration of Coach 28. However, on the plus side, a team of volunteers began work on Drumboe removing the cab and side tanks in preparation for asbestos removal and the Society received a number of original items from Inver Station including the water tower and the Booking Office hatch, the latter still in use today! In addition, the Society’s desire to have authentic Donegal stock received a boost, with the discovery of railcar trailer No 5 in the hills above Doochary and this was successfully recovered to Donegal. In October, the Society was aware of a supply of good quality rail, available from a Northern Ireland Contractor and was keen to purchase. In a meeting with Bord Fáilte, they were advised that Interreg funds would be available on the 31st December and that subject to success of their application for planning permission for Croaghonagh to Derg Bridge, funding would be made available.
It was also recommended they go ahead with purchase and when Donegal County Council agreed to sponsor a FÁS team of 40 labourers to lay the track, the Society went ahead with the purchase of the track. In December, just days before track laying was to start, the Roads Dept. of the DCC advised of plans for a Balleybofey bypass which would cut through the former railway line in a number of places – something of which the Planning Department of DCC were unaware – but once the bypass was confirmed, the application for planning permission to lay track was invalidated and with this, the promised funding from Bord Fáilte lost. It was a body blow to the Society to have to relinquish the track which had been obtained, though not yet paid for, particularly when, somewhat ironically, it ended up in Fintown!
Through the early part of 1994, consideration was given to alternatives for the Barnesmore Gap proposal but these were thwarted by, first, by a landowner at the southern end of the Gap and secondly by a house adjacent to the line, built post closure, which a geologist advised was in danger of collapse from vibrations that would result from the passing of locomotives, resulting in the owner withdrawing permission for the railway to cross his land. The Society was forced to abandon the Barnesmore option. Negotiations were opened with CIÉ with a view to obtaining a lease for the old station building in Donegal (which had lain unoccupied for many years) for the development of a museum and use as offices. August of that year saw Joe Caroll depart from his role of project Director to take up a similar post with the Cavan & Leitrim Project in Dromod. Patrick Stewart was appointed as the FÁS manager and set about securing the workforce and materials to develop the station building, work commencing in October 1994. The Society also examined some alternative routes for tracklaying and a 3 mile stretch on the Ballyshannon line from near the old station at Ballintra to Rossnowlagh offered promise.
In December of that year, a meeting attended by a majority of the landowners along the route was generally favourable to the proposal, though with a touch of déjà vu, one dissenting voice from a landowner near the end of the proposed line necessitated a small modification and the overall support was sufficient for the Committee to look to further this option. 1994 also saw the publication of a first Visitors Guide (South Donegal) and the first set of colour heritage postcards.
February 1995 saw the Society move into offices on the first floor of Donegal Railway Station. Much progress had been made on the dereliction that had been witnessed when the door was opened in October ‘94. But there was still much work to be done with an opening of The Donegal Railway Restoration Project Page 3 of 1 the first phase scheduled for 3 rd June and with the efforts of eight FÁS workers and generously donated materials, the work was complete by the end of May, allowing Steve Flanders to set up a range of information display boards he had prepared. On schedule, on the 3 rd June, The Donegal Railway Heritage Centre was officially opened by Pat “the Cope” Gallagher. At the AGM the same weekend, a proposal to change the name from the “South” to the “County Donegal Railway Restoration Society” (CDRRS) was adopted.
1996 saw work continuing on the Heritage Centre Building with the roofing and conversion of the toilet block to serve as a new sales area which opened in August of that year, the opening coinciding with the arrival of George Hanan’s wonderful scale model of Donegal Station. In researching the forthcoming visitor’s guide to the Lough Swilly railway, Dave Bell and Steve Flanders noted the old signal cabin at Newtowncunningham station was still present, although in fairly poor condition – the last known surviving LLSR signal cabin. This was given to the Society and a group retrieved it on the 28th June and returned to Donegal for restoration. By now, the hopes of completing the Ballintra-Rossnowlagh proposal had vanished and with the Heritage Centre up and running, thoughts turned to considering an option from the Centre to Gorrell’s crossing and possibly beyond to Clar Bridge. Two Society publications appeared – The Lough Swilly Railway Visitors Guide, by Dave Bell and Steve Flanders, produced in-house, and The County Donegal Railway: a Pictorial History, by Steve Flanders, produced by Midland Publishing and essentially a significant development on the original Through the Hills of Donegal. In November, Drumboe was moved from Balleybofey to Donegal Town. The St John Bosco Centre agreed to the Society having the old engine shed and initial thoughts were given to the systematic dismantling of same, with a view to rebuilding at an alternative site.
1997 proved a relatively quiet year – lack of finance mainly preventing significant progress. Discussions with the St John Bosco Centre for the acquisition of the old engine shed were finalised with the Society agreeing to build a shed to compensate for the loss of the storage function to which the Bosco had put the engine shed. The proposal for a line to Gorrells’ rested on continued uncertainty over the Mart’s future. On the publication side, the second set of colour postcards was produced and a second pictorial history of the Lough Swilly Railway by Steve was produced by Midland Publications. In addition, a bilingual children’s book Drumboe the Donegal Engine, written and translated by Steve’s wife Heather, including illustrations by Society member Blanche Pay and produced entirely “in-house” was published.
Early 1998 provided a positive boost with the granting of outline planning permission for a running line from the station house to Clar Bridge – this despite the fact that the Donegal bypass was already under construction and would prove an obstacle beyond Gorrells. The Mart yard had to be crossed / bypassed and the Mart committee expressed a willingness to cooperate. The main restoration work at the Centre focussed on Trailer 5. The crossing cottage at Drimark came up for sale – Patrick Stewart had previously had contact from an American lady whose relatives had lived there. A sale was concluded and the plan was for restoration of the cottage to its original form, with the help of the Society. There was even an early suggestion that the cottage would be donated to the Society when completed, though this never occurred. Ann Temple was appointed manager of the Centre.
Into 1999 and the Society had received a series of complaints regarding lack of communication, coupled with a falloff in membership numbers. The Society magazine, Phoenix, which had been promised at least twice per year had not been received for nearly two years, due to lack of funding.
In October, the Society’s FÁS scheme was merged with another at Ardnamona. The visitors guide to the County Donegal Railway was published in house. To mark the 40th anniversary of closure, an event to mark the 40th anniversary of closure, attended by former CDR workers and local dignitaries, was held in the Heritage Centre at the end of November. The dawn of the new Millennium saw the Society receive a grant to boost marketing. Restoration work was nearing completion on trailer 5 and thoughts were turning to beginning work on the passenger section of railcar 15. The future of the Mart Yard remained uncertain so little progress on the proposed line to Gorrells. For the first time, at least as far as was conveyed to the membership, the bank was expressing concern about the amount of debt the Society had accumulated and insisted the debt be cleared as soon as possible.
2001 In response, Ann Temple organised a mega-draw whereby books of tickets were sent in the Christmas mailing to all members and widely distributed locally. The draw was held in March, on an evening to mark the tenth anniversary of the Society and raised sufficient funds to clear the debt. The Government announced the FÁS scheme was to be scrapped and replaced by Social Economy, whereby in response to a successful Business Plan Application full funding would be granted with a view to the business being self-funding thereafter. Funding was secured for Neil Tee to write a Business plan, submitted in September of that year. A grant was also obtained to carry out a feasibility study for the proposed line to Gorrells and Neil Tee continued in a role as consultant to the Society. Drumboe received a cosmetic overhaul. The second half of former coach 58 was located in Creeslough and was secured for the Society (the other half is in use as a ticket office at Fintown). The bodies of Red Van No 12 and wagons 30, 31 and 295 were also located.
2002 The Social Economy application was successful and under this, Ann Temple became Centre Manager. This also required a Limited Company to be set up and County Donegal Railway Restoration Ltd was incorporated. The feasibility study for the line to Gorrells now included an extension to the proposed shopping development at Drumlonagher with the suggestion of a year-long “park and ride” scheme operated from the Heritage Centre. News was received of closure of both the Foyle Valley Museum in Derry and the CTGL operation in Fintown. In March, the half of Coach 58 was retrieved from Creeslough and initial approaches were made to Fintown to see if their half could be reunited with that now in Donegal. Neil Tee assumed the role of Chief Operating Officer.
2003 Drumboe was moved and placed on a stretch of prepared rail in a prominent position in the front of the Heritage Centre Garden. Bogies were obtained for Coach 28 with a view to placing alongside Drumboe. Railcar No 15 body and trailer 5 were moved to the yard in Donegal with a view to further restoration work. The outline planning permission for a running line to Gorrells elapsed though efforts made to try to renew were successful. In the summer, CTGL agreed to their half of coach 58 being returned to Donegal. A chimney from a Class 5 locomotive was discovered in Antrim and returned to Donegal. A video of the CDR and associated life was produced from donated cine film.
2004 Plans were commenced for the unification and restoration of the two halves of coach 58 and the restoration of railcar 15’s passenger compartment, with a view to initially uniting these together, creating useful space for the Centre’s activities A Wickham platelayer’s trolley, The Donegal Railway Restoration Project Page 5 of 1 previously purchased by members and donated, was finally moved to Donegal with a view to restoration including a replacement motor. Further wagon bodies were identified and attempts commenced for their acquisition and retrieval. A Heritage Council funded report on all existing railway buildings in the County was produced. As a result, a third objective for the Company was added i.e. “to campaign for and assist the safeguarding, maintenance, and appropriate restoration of railway buildings and remains over the whole of County Donegal to benefit tourist, heritage and educational interest” was added to those of running the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre as a sustainable business and seeking to reinstate part of the 3ft gauge County Donegal Railway.
2005 Plans were prepared for securing protected building status for the Station building in Donegal, for demolition and storage of the engine shed and for work on a Ruston diesel locomotive that had previously been secured by a member and had been delivered following a period and some preliminary work at Dromod. In the Summer, Company members took the Mayor of Donegal, a supporter of the Gorrells project, to view the workings of a preserved narrow-gauge line in France. Three Ruston engines were purchased from Bord na Móna in Bellacorrick. No 28 was placed on bogies next to Drumboe and wagons 30 and 31 together with Red Van 12 were finally collected and brought to the Station. Foundations were laid and bases prepared for Coach 58 and Railcar trailer 15.
2006 Consideration was given to reawakening the Barnesmore project and a resurvey of the track bed was undertaken. Plans were prepared to apply for full planning permission for the Gorrells line. Interreg funding was secured for initial restoration work on Drumboe and she was moved to the RPSI in Whitehead, Co. Antrim for this purpose. The Wickham trolley had a new chassis made by RPSI and a suitable engine was sought for it. Railcar Trailer No 5 was also receiving. Coach 58 and trailer 15 were placed on the prepared bases where restoration was to be carried out. The use of all the Goods shed was given to the Company for use as storage.
2007 A formal proposal for reinstatement of a steam railway in Barnesmore Gap was prepared by Chris Romain, the outgoing chairman and application for a grant to undertake a feasibility study was made. An event to mark Drumboe’s centenary was held in May, for which the engine was returned to Donegal. Trailer 5 was also returned in a very much restored condition. Grant aid was received to complete restoration of the ex-BnM Wickham trolley.
2008 Grant aid had been received for restoration of a fire damaged CDR wagon at Foyle Valley. Resources at Whitehead were saturated so a team was recruited for the work to be carried out locally under supervision of an RPSI joiner. Initial work on restoration of Red Van 12 and Wagon 31 began. No response to the application for protected status for Donegal Station House was received despite repeated requests to the County Council. But the Company was offered Ballymagorry station and Goods shed for demolition and reconstruction elsewhere. Following news that the former ticket office at Ballyshannon Station was to be demolished, the Company successfully salvaged a number of Heritage items. Restoration work on Red Van No 12 was completed. A first Model Railway exhibition was staged in Donegal Town.
2009 Work on restoring Drumboe continued despite the end of Interreg grants, the RPSI providing the work and materials. The Ruston diesel was transferred to Whitehead for repair work. By The Donegal Railway Restoration Project Page 6 of 1 autumn it was restored to running order as was the Wickham trolley following the fitting of a new motor. Plans were prepared for an event marking the 50th anniversary of closure in December – these included the laying of a stretch of track at the crossing cottage at Mullanbuoys, which was being restore by its owner, and the running of a train service using the Wickham trolley. A second Model Railway Exhibition was held in May.
2010 A canopy roof was erected in the Station grounds over No 15’s base to protect it from the worst of the elements. A Heritage grant for restoration of the latter allowed the purchase of wood to begin restoration. Van 84 was originally destined for Fintown but, as they have no use for it, it would remain at Donegal as storage for displays. Moves were begun to develop closer working ties between five groups – CDRRL, Fintown, NWIRS, Derry City Council and RPSI – all interested in perpetuating the CDR.
2011 A lease arrangement, which had been under discussion with Bus Éireann for several years, was sorted! Some work continued at Whitehead, using RPSI monies but these eventually dried up, with further work suspended pending any available further funding. The Barnesmore application stalled with the application apparently mislaid at Fáilte Ireland. A Donegal-Derry Railway Heritage Group was formed comprising CDRRL, Fintown and NWIRS. Financially the Company was affected by delays and other problems with the Pobal grant scheme. Two Model Railway Exhibitions were arranged for Kee’s Hotel in Stranorlar for August and September. In addition, model railway displays were arranged for a Heritage Centre Open Day to coincide with the Donegal Heritage Week.
2012 Some positive news was received in the promise of grant aid from Donegal Local Development Company for restoration of Nos 15 and 58. Plans were made to reproduce and revise Through the Hills of Donegal. With otherwise continuing problems with grant aid and to raise necessary funds, the three ex-BnM Ruston diesels were sold to a scrap dealer in Northern Ireland at considerable profit. There was continued lack of progress with the Barnesmore Proposal and none with the Donegal-Derry Railway Heritage Group. Restored van No 87 joined Coach 28 on the Station lawn. The John Bosco Centre offered use of their premises, free of charge, for a Model Railway Exhibition in July.
2013 Restoration work on 15 and 58 proceeded apace and open and used for the AGM in May. Problems were being experienced with the paintwork on trailer 5 and some significant rot was detected in coach 28. The Model Railway Road Show visited the Foyle Valley Museum in Derry, Kee’s Hotel in Stranorlar, Burtonport and Bundoran.
2014 Some financial difficulties early in the year resulted from the National Economic recession with some local businesses, who had supported the Company, closing. A small amount of residual money from the DLDC grant allowed work on the roofs of Nos 28 and 5. A total of eight Model Railway shows were organised.
2015 Neil Tee retired from the Staff in September, as required under Pobal regulations and conditions but agreed to continue as Secretary on a part-time basis until a replacement was found. Through the Hills of Donegal was published and plans to produce a publication of Mike Bunch’s diary and photos were put in place. Plans were discussed with RPSI to return The Donegal Railway Restoration Project Page 7 of 1 Drumboe to Donegal for display minus her boiler which would then be available for repair work when finances allowed.
2016 A very substantial model railway was donated by a man resident near Lough Eske who was moving and downsizing. This was recovered to Donegal with a possible view to including in future Model Railway shows, though its size presents logistical problems. Further work on the deterioration in Coach 28 continued. The possibility of once more promoting a track of rail line was suggested.
2017 The Mike Bunch Diary and photographic collection Part 1 was published when promised grant aid finally came through. A fall in visitor numbers and lack of spending power made meeting financial targets difficult. At the end of 2017 Anne Temple retired, Neil Tee and a number of the board resigned and a new board formed. Donna Maskery (nee Scott) took up post as Manager in January 2018 and work is ongoing to create the next phase in the history of ‘County Donegal Railway Restoration project’.