A view looking north along the up platform at St Johnston station on 20 July 1966. The down line had been lifted by a demolition train in the late autumn of 1965 but for some reason the up loop had been left in situ for recovery by road.
Photo by Roger Joanes from his Flickr photostream.
St Johnston is a small village, on the west side of the River Foyle, in County Donegal, Ireland. In 1845 the Londonderry & Enniskillen Railway (L&ER) was authorised to build a 59 mile single track line between the city of Derry/Londonderry and Enniskillen and work began in October that year. Construction started from Derry/Londonderry and the course of the line followed the west bank of the River Foyle, passing through St Johnston, to Strabane. The first 14 miles of the single track L&ER line, between Londonderry (Gallows Strand) and Strabane, opened on 19 April 1847. A station was provided to serve the village. It was located on the eastern edge of St Johnston close to the River Foyle.
At the time of opening there were two other intermediate stations (Carrigans and Carrickmore).
St Johnston was close to being the mid-point of the line (being 8 miles from Strabane and 7 from Derry/Londonderry) and for that reason it was provided with a passing loop. Located on the south side of a level crossing, which carried a minor road, Railway Road across the line, it is not known what the facilities consisted of at the time of opening but they included a goods siding.
The time table for March 1850 shows St Johnston as having four trains in each direction. Monday-to-Saturday there were up trains (southbound) to Strabane at 6.50am (the Sligo Mail), 9.20am, 1.50pm and 4.20pm (the Dublin Mail). The journey time to Strabane was 25 minutes. Monday-to-Saturday down trains (northbound) to Londonderry (Gallows Strand) departed at 8.05am (The Dublin Mail), 10.40am, 3.10pm and 5.35pm (The Sligo Mail). The journey time to Derry/Londonderry was 20 minutes. On Sundays there was one train each way.
The Derry/Londonderry terminus at Gallows Strand was a mile from the centre of the city and was therefore inconvenient for both passengers and goods. The L&ER opened an extension to a new station, located at Foyle Road close to the centre of the city, on 18 April 1850.
The first section of the L&ER line did not live up to financial expectations and that made progress with the southwards extensions difficult. The first extension south from Strabane opened to Newtownstewart on 9 May 1852 and a few months later, on 13 September 1852, Omagh was reached.
On 19 August 1854 the L&ER finally reached Enniskillen.
In February 1859 the Dundalk & Enniskillen Railway (D&ER) reached Enniskillen. This changed things for the L&ER line as it was now connected to Ireland’s capital city Dublin as part of a trunk route. The L&ER realised that more efficient running of train services could be brought about if both lines were worked by one company. They entered into negotiations with the D&ER and from 1 January 1860 that company took out a lease on the L&ER line and started to operate the train services. This resulted in through running between Derry/Londonderry and Dundalk with through coaches to Dublin. On 2 September 1861 the Portadown, Dungannon & Omagh Railway completed its route which created a direct route to Belfast.
On 7 July 1862 the D&ER was renamed as the Irish North Western Railway (INWR).
In 1863 St Johnston was served by three trains in each direction.
By the 1860s a single storey station building of brick with a slate roof had been provided at St Johnston. It was located immediately to the south of the level crossing on the down side of the line. Its position with regards to height from track level suggests that at this time St Johnston had only low platforms.
On 1 January 1876 agreement was reached for INWR to be taken over by the Northern Railway (Ireland) and in turn that company merged with the Ulster Railway to form the Great Northern Railway Ireland (GNRI) on 1 April 1876. In 1883 the GNRI bought out the L&ER lease.
The GNRI carried out further improvements at St Johnston. It is recorded that the main platform was extended by 150 feet in 1879. This was probably when the platforms took on their final form. Both platforms became the standard height. They were faced with stone and paved along the edge. The surface was made from crushed stone.
Around this time a new building was provided on the down platform a little further to the south of the earlier INWR facility which was repurposed as the Station Master’s house. The new building was in typical GNRI style and included both red and yellow brick. A substantial timber waiting room, also in a GNRI house style, was provided on the up platform.
There was a goods shed on the east side of the line to the south of the passenger station. The goods siding extended to run behind the up platform. In 1892 a new signal cabin was provided to a similar design as the signal cabin at Bundoran, designed by WA Mills.
The timetable of December 1895 showed St Johnston as having 5 up trains Monday-to-Saturday. Trains departed at 7.02am for Strabane, at 10.55am for Dundalk at 1.52pm for Enniskillen, at 5.00pm for Clones and at 9.45pm for Dundalk (via Portadown). In the down direction there were 6 trains one of which called by request. They all ran to Londonderry Foyle Road the first departing at 9.29am. There were then trains at 12.15am, 2.30pm, 3.20pm, 5.00pm followed by the request stop service at 8.50pm.
On Sundays there was only one train, at 9.45pm, which was an Up service to Belfast Great Victoria Street.
The 1904 Handbook of Station listed St Johnston as being able to handle general goods, parcels and livestock.
In 1907 traffic had become so heavy on the line that the GNRI doubled it between St Johnston and Derry/Londonderry. A new signal cabin was provided. It was located at the south end of the down platform. The cabin was a GNRI type with a Railway Signalling Company frame.
On 4 August 1914 the British Empire declared war on Germany and entered the Great War. From 1 January 1917 the GNRI was taken into British Government control (along with all of the other Irish railways). The GNRI system was used intensely during the war years. Almost as soon as the fighting had stopped, on 11 November 1918, the Irish War of Independence broke out in January 1919. In early 1921 the British Government relinquished control of the GNRI and it was put back into the hands of its directors.
The line’s problems had not gone away however as by 1922 Ireland was partitioned into two separate countries. As a company the GNRI now found itself operating in both new states. The line through St Johnston between Londonderry Foyle Road and Strabane was particularly problematic. The intermediate stations of the route were all located in County Donegal, which became part of the ‘Free State’. County Tyrone in which Strabane was located, and County Londonderry in which the city of Derry/Londonderry was located, both became part of Northern Ireland. This meant that customs checks had to be made for passengers and goods that were passing between the two countries. Customs facilities were provided at St Johnston station and a ‘Free State’ customs officer was based there.
As if this wasn’t bad enough a Civil War broke out in The Irish Free State in June 1922. This caused further disruption to the railway in County Donegal and it went on until May 1923.
Despite these difficult operating problems, the July 1922 timetable showed 4 Up and 5 Down services Monday-to-Saturday. In the Up direction there was a 7.38am service to Dundalk, an 11.32am train to Clones, a 2.45pm service to Dundalk and a 5.22pm train to Enniskillen. Down trains all ran to Londonderry Foyle Road, departing at 9.33am, 12.46am, 2.43pm, 5.10pm and at 8.41pm. There was no Sunday service in 1922.
In order to make operations along the line through St Johnston with regards to the border situation less disruptive two important innovations were devised. Many longer distance passenger services ran non-stop between Derry/Londonderry and Strabane which meant that customs checks were not necessary. For goods that were coming into St Johnston from other locations within the Irish Free State the wagons were sealed for their passage through Northern Ireland. Customs officials at St Johnston could then check that the wagons had remained sealed. The same applied to outgoing goods. The practice was also adopted at Porthall and Carrigans, which disrupted and delayed all traffic.
The 1930s were difficult for the GNRI as they faced industrial unrest and increasing competition from road vehicles.
In 1933 the line between St Johnston and Derry/Londonderry was singled (having only been doubled in 1907), partly due to a decline in freight and passenger traffic since partition in 1922. A passing loop and the signal cabin were retained at St Johnston.
In 1938 there were 6 Up services Monday-to-Friday. The first Up departure was at 7.35am and the last was at 9.46pm. There was an additional Up departure on Saturdays at 11.31pm. In the Down direction there were 6 trains Monday-to-Saturday all of which ran to Londonderry Foyle Road. The Down services were at 9.29 am, 1.30pm, 2.50pm, 4.44pm, 7.33pm and 8.46 pm. There were 2 trains in each direction on Sundays.
During the Second World War there was an upturn in traffic but owing to the Irish Free State being a neutral country maximum use of the route through St Johnston could not be made as war materials and troop trains could not pass that way to the important wartime port of Londonderry.
After the war ended in 1945 the railways of Northern Ireland were subjected to even more competition from road transport after war time restrictions were gradually eased by 1950.
In 1948/9 Nationalisation came to the railways of Northern Ireland, with the notable exception of the GNRI. As the GNRI operated in two separate countries nationalisation of only part of it, that which was in Northern Ireland, would have proved to be difficult. The Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) was set up in 1948 to run transport services within Northern Ireland (including buses and road haulage) and it very quickly showed itself to be a pro-road entity. On 15 January 1950 the entire system of the Belfast & County Down Railway was closed down on the same day, with the exception of branches to Bangor and Donaghadee. Other closures came thick and fast in 1950 when many former NCC lines were closed such as their narrow gauge lines in County Antrim and the former County Down branch to Donaghadee on 22 April 1950. The GNRI, having avoided nationalisation in both parts of Ireland by 1950, did not face the same levels of closure as the other railways of Northern Ireland but financially it was struggling and by 1953 it could no longer continue. From 1 September 1953 the governments of the Republic of Ireland (the Irish Free State had become a full republic on Easter Monday 1949) and Northern Ireland formed the Great Northern Railway Board (GNRB). The board included equal representation from both governments. The Republic had nationalised all its railways under Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE) in 1950.
The summer timetable for 1954 showed 5 Up services Monday-to-Friday. The first Up train departed at 7.15am for Belfast Great Victoria Street. At 10.41am there was a train for Strabane followed by an Omagh service at 1.45pm. There was another Omagh service at 5.48pm and the final train of the day was a Belfast Great Victoria Street service at 6.59pm. On Saturdays there was an additional up train which departed at 11.28pm and ran to Victoria Bridge. In the Down direction there were 4 trains Monday-to-Saturday all of which ran to Londonderry Foyle Road. They departed from St Johnston at 9.19am, 2.43pm, 6.34pm and 9.40pm. There were no Sunday services.
Track lifting took place in late 1965 (although the up loop lasted until at least July 1966). Both the INWR and the GNRI station buildings and both platforms were extant in 2020.
The GNRB was unable to stop the losses, the Northern Ireland government was not of a mind to sustain them and economies started to be made. In 1956 Stormont had announced that there would be more closures, which included the route between Omagh and Enniskillen (part of the original route of the L&ER) and these lines, 115 miles in total, were closed during September/October 1957. These severe closures were opposed by the Dublin Government and the GNRB as being unrealistic and economically damaging. At the end of 1957 the Northern Ireland government at Stormont announced that it was going to end the agreement with Dublin that had created the GNRB in 1953.
At midnight on 30 September 1958 the GNRB ceased to exist when the ‘Board’ was wound up and the assets of the company were divided between the UTA of Northern Ireland and the CIE of The Republic of Ireland. The 8 mile long section of the Derry/Londonderry – Strabane line that lay within the Republic of Ireland passed into the hands of CIE. Staff at St Johnston became CIE employees.
St Johnston’s train services were operated by the UTA. By 1958 there were only 4 local trains in each direction Monday-to-Friday with an additional up service running to Victoria Bridge on Saturday evenings only.
The UTA started to use ex-GNRI railcar A for the local services that served Porthall. The railcar had come into service in 1932 and would be renumbered as 101 by the UTA in October 1961.When Railcar 101 was not available, one of the two steam engines at Derry that had arrived with the night goods would operate these local services instead.
The working timetable of September 1961 showed a reduced service to St Johnston. There was a morning goods service from Strabane to Derry/Londonderry that was booked to call at St Johnston daily, except on a Sunday. From Mondays-to-Saturdays there were two up passenger trains from Strabane to Londonderry Foyle Road that called at St Johnston with an extra train to Derry/Londonderry on a Saturday evening only. Passenger services from St Johnston to Strabane were reduced to just two passenger trains, both from Foyle Road, on weekdays only. There was also a mixed train from Foyle Road to Strabane Tuesday-to-Saturdays, that called at St Johnston Some services still crossed using the passing loop during the summer months only.
In 1962 the Northern Ireland government commissioned an enquiry into its railways. The enquiry was carried out by Colonel Henry Benson and on 17 July 1963 he published his report (which became known as the Benson Report). The report recommended the closure of the ‘Derry Road’ route. Tyrone County Council supported by other local authorities along the route attempted to stop the closure through dialogue with the Northern Ireland government and when that failed they resorted to court action against the plans of the UTA, who were following orders from Stormont.
From 15 June 1964 the UTA introduced their last summer timetable for services on the Derry Road. St Johnston had no passenger services from Derry to Strabane, from Mondays-to-Fridays. The only up service was a Monday-to-Saturday goods that ran from St. Johnston to Strabane at 12.45pm. On Saturdays St Johnston had one up service, to Strabane, at 6.32pm. In the down direction there were 2 passenger trains Mondays-to-Fridays both of which ran to Londonderry Foyle Road. On Saturdays there were an extra 3 down passenger services from St Johnston (giving 5 trains in total). There was also a Monday-to-Saturday goods service from Strabane to St Johnston which ran from 15 June 1964 until January 1965.
In the end the court action that was taken by Tyrone County Council was to fail and closure was announced for 4 January 1965. A second hearing merely staved off the closure for another 6 weeks for passengers only until 14 February 1965.
After the loss of the goods services from 4 January 1965 passenger trains still operated using the new winter timetable (introduced from 7 September 1964). There was still only the one up passenger service (to Strabane) on Saturdays at 6.32pm. In the down there was one down service to Londonderry Foyle Road at 2.27pm Mondays-to-Saturdays. On Saturdays there were 3 down trains (giving 4 in total) to Foyle Road. As there was no Sunday service at St Johnston, the last passenger trains ran on Saturday 13 February 1965.