The rear of the platform of Ballyheather Halt seen looking south-east on 9 September 2020.
Photo from Jim McBride.
Ballyheather is a tiny settlement in County Tyrone, Ireland, located 10 miles to the south of the city of Derry/Londonderry. On 7 August 1896 the Donegal Railway (DR) obtained an act to build a 14½ mile single track 3ft gauge railway between Strabane and the Waterside area that lay on the eastern bank of the Foyle opposite Derry/Londonderry. The course of the line passed to the east of Ballyheather but there were no plans to provide a station there. In 1896 the DR had a 74 mile network of 3ft gauge railways that had Strabane as their easternmost point. To get goods and passengers to and from the important city of Derry/Londonderry required the use of the Great Northern Railway Ireland (GNRI) 5ft 3inch gauge line between Strabane and Londonderry Foyle Road. Financially this situation was to the detriment of the DR and to the advantage of the GNRI, which was the primary reason for the line being built.
The line opened for goods services on 1 August 1900 and passenger services began six days later. A station was at provided at Waterside which was called Londonderry Victoria Road. Passengers and goods could move into the city via the double deck Carlisle Bridge which was adjacent to the station.
In 1902 the DR decided to provide a halt at Ballyheather, presumably as a means of attracting additional passengers. The halt was located a short distance to the east of the tiny settlement and was accessed from Ballyheather Road by a short path. It was 4½ miles from Strabane and 10 miles from Londonderry Victoria Road.
The halt consisted of a simple short platform that had a nameboard towards its northern end. A simple waiting shelter of corrugated iron was located at the mid-point of the platform.
The halt was not staffed and tickets were sold by the train Guard. The tickets that were issued for Ballyheather Halt were of a salmon pink colour.
At the time of opening there were 6 trains each way between Victoria Road and Strabane and the DR hoped to develop some commuter traffic along the Finn Valley through to Derry/Londonderry. Trains left Victoria Road from 07.15 to 7.25pm and some of these trains continued to Stranorlar and even Killybegs. In the return direction trains left Strabane for Victoria Road at times from 08.30 to 7.25pm. Even in the 1910 timetable there were still 6 departures from Victoria Road and 5 from Strabane with a special express service on Fair Days only from Letterkenny, though this was not booked to call at Ballyheather.
Victoria Road was not the only station at Waterside. Londonderry Waterside station had opened in 1852, and since 15 May 1860 it had been the terminus of the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway (BNCR). In 1903 the BNCR had been taken over by the Midland Railway (MR) an English company that had aspirations for expansion in Ireland. They looked west from Derry/Londonderry and saw an opportunity in the form of the DR. They entered into discussions with them with regards to a takeover. The GNRI saw this as a threat and made it clear that they would try to block such a move. A compromise was reached which involved the MR and the GNRI taking control of the DR as equal partners. On 1 May 1906 the DR was absorbed by the two larger companies who ran it through a board as the County Donegal Railway Joint Committee (CDR). As the GNRI had a route between Strabane and Derry/Londonderry the line through Ballyheather (between Londonderry Victoria Road and Strabane) passed solely to the MR. As the sole owner of the branch the MR was responsible for all of the infrastructure including the halt. However as the line was actually an integral part of the CDR network all of the train services (passenger and goods) were operated by them.
In 1912 a Sunday service of one train in each direction was introduced. In 1913 an additional Sunday out and return working was introduced.
On 4 August 1914 the British Empire declared war on Germany and entered the Great War. From 1 January 1917 the CDR was taken under government control (along with all of the other Irish railways). The Sunday services were withdrawn in 1917 and never reinstated. The weekday service was also reduced to four trains in each direction.
In 1919 the Irish War of Independence broke out and it caused much disruption to the CDR system. In December 1921 a treaty was negotiated which resulted in the island of Ireland being split into two separate countries, the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland which remained as part of the United Kingdom. The majority of the CDR lines were located within the Irish Free State but the route through Ballyheather lay within Northern Ireland. This caused difficulties for the company, which were exacerbated by the outbreak of the Irish Civil War (1922-23) which caused even more disruption. The least disrupted route was the Londonderry Victoria Road – Strabane line on which no major incidents were recorded as it ran through a mainly Unionist area.
The July 1922 timetable showed Ballyheather as having two up and one down passenger trains which called by request only Monday-to-Saturday (there being three up and four down trains that called at the stations along the line).
In 1923 the MR was absorbed into the London Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) who became the part owner of the CDR and the owner of the Strabane – Londonderry Victoria Road line. The LMS let their network in Northern Ireland operate as the Northern Counties Committee (NCC).
In 1934 (following the closure of the engine shed at Londonderry Victoria Road) the passenger service was reduced to three trains in each direction. Ballyheather Halt though was still a request stop only.
During the Second World War (1939-45) the CDR saw an upturn in traffic. There was a high volume of cattle movements from the Irish Free State to Londonderry. Because the GNRI main line between Londonderry Foyle Road and Strabane passed through the Irish Free State it could not be used for the movement of war materials or troops (the Free State being a neutral country). As the Londonderry Victoria Road and Strabane line was located entirely within Northern Ireland serious consideration was given in 1942 to making it dual gauge (3ft and 5ft 3in), so that GNRI trains could reach Londonderry without having to pass through the Irish Free State. In the end the idea proved to be too complicated and all war related traffic had to operate via the LMS NCC main line to Derry/Londonderry, a vital wartime naval port, instead.
The 1946 timetable showed three trains in each direction (see below) all of which could be requested to stop at Ballyheather Halt.
In January 1948, when the LMS was nationalised as part of the Railway Executive the NCC share of the CDR passed to the London Midland Region of British Railways. By April 1949 all the railways of Northern Ireland, with exception of the CDR, GNRI and the SL&NC (as they operated in two countries), had been nationalised as part of the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA). In April 1949 the former NCC network was purchased by the Northern Ireland government on behalf of the UTA for £2.67 million. Being part of the NCC network the Strabane – Londonderry Victoria Road line passed to the UTA but it continued to be worked by the CDR. The UTA paid the costs of the Londonderry Victoria Road service and that meant that there was no incentive to economise. As the UTA paid the CDR to operate the trains on this section of the CDR network, they were always steam operated until closure. The CDR even designed their timetable after the 1930s so that all steam locos in service daily would visit Victoria Road.
The UTA announced its intention to close the line between Londonderry Victoria Road and Strabane in October 1954. The last trains ran on 31 December 1954. It’s not known if any of those final trains made a call at Ballyheather.
On 29 June 1955 a light engine made a journey through Ballyheather as part of a round trip between Strabane and Londonderry Victoria Road. The purpose of this movement was to test the permanent way for a special excursion train that was to run on 30 June 1955. The excursion train carrying, Sunday School children as part of an outing to Portrush (via a short walk between Victoria Road and Waterside stations), operated as scheduled. The down train that passed through Ballyheather on the return leg of the journey would be the very last train to pass through the halt.
Track lifting began at Londonderry Victoria Road in November 1955 but Ballyheather was not reached until the end of the year.
The halt was situated close to Ballyheather Road from which the remains of the platform can still be observed. This was a small passenger only Halt but most of its basic facilities still survive despite being closed in December 1954.
The north end of the Ballyheather Halt platform seen on 9 September 2020. Upturned rails that had been used as fence posts can be seen at the rear of the platform.
Photo from Jim McBride