On 21 August 1959 a goods train for Stranorlar is seen passing through the Strabane CDR station. Above the train is the footbridge that provided a link to the GNRI station which can be seen to the right.
Photo by Roger Joanes from his Flickr photostream
The first railway to arrive at Strabane in County Tyrone was the Londonderry & Enniskillen Railway (L&ER) which opened between Strabane and a temporary terminus Londonderry Cow Market on 19 April 1847 (extended to the permanent terminus of Londonderry Foyle Road on 18 April 1850). The line was extended southwards to Newtonstewart on 9 May 1852 and was part of a through route to Dublin by 1859 (via Enniskillen and Dundalk) and to Belfast by 1861 (via Omagh and Portadown). By 1861 the L&ER was being operated by the Irish North Western Railway (INWR).
Fourteen miles to the west of Strabane, located on the River Finn in County Donegal, are the twin town of Stranorlar (north bank of the river) and Ballybofey (south bank of the river). The two largest landowners of the area were the 4th Viscount Lifford and Sir Samuel Hayes Bart. They soon realised that a railway between Stranorlar and Strabane following the course of the River Finn would bring many benefits. In 1859 they formed the Finn Valley Railway Company (FVR) and on 15 May 1860 they obtained an Act to build a line 14 miles long between Strabane and Stranorlar. The line was built to the Irish standard gauge (5ft 3inch) which was the same gauge as the L&ER line. An agreement was reached with the L&ER that allowed the FVR to share the use of the existing Strabane station as their eastern terminus. A connection was made with the L&ER line 30 chains to the south of Strabane station before the bridge over the River Mourne. The FVR opened on 7 September 1863.
It was the desire to push railways further into County Donegal that would bring about a second station at Strabane. On 25 April 1882 the West Donegal Railway (WDR) opened a 3ft gauge line between Stranorlar and Drumminin (later Lough Eske) which was extended to Donegal Town itself on 16 September 1889. The fact that the FVR line was 5ft 3inch and the WDR line was 3ft gauge meant that goods had to be trans-shipped, and passengers had to change, at Stranorlar. This resulted in increased costs for both companies. On 27 June 1892 Parliamentary approval for a merger between the FVR and WDR was granted. A new company, the Donegal Railway (DR), was formed.
In the years leading up to the creation of the DR consideration had been given to converting the former FVR line to 3ft gauge and the idea was pressed ahead with by the new DR company who obtained an Act to undertake this task in 1893.
As the line into Strabane was to be converted to 3ft gauge that meant that simple through running into the existing Strabane station (since 1 April 1876 part of the Great Northern Railway Ireland [GNRI]) would no longer be possible. Mixed gauge track was technically possible but there had in the past been strained relations between the owning companies of the main line and those of the DR branch. In addition to this the charges applied to the DR (and its predecessors) for using the GNRI station and track were not insignificant. As part of the 1893 Act authority was given for the DR to build a station of its own at Strabane and a new length of railway, which included a new bridge over the River Mourne, giving the CDR for the very first time its own independent access to Strabane station. The old junction between the two systems would also be removed.
The new DR station at Strabane opened on Monday 16 July 1894 (the conversion of the gauge having taken place over the weekend of the 14 and 15 July). The station was built adjacent to the GNRI facility to the west of it. Both stations were on the north-western edge of their namesake town.
Strabane DR station was accessed from Lifford Road to which it was connected by its own carriage road. At the time of opening there was just one platform and the passenger facilities were housed in a single storey building in cream brick with contrasting dark string courses under a hipped slate roof. The hipped glazed awning complemented the profile of the building's roof. The building had been designed by James and John Barton of Dundalk. The platform face was on the east side and was served by a single track that had a loop to facilitate the running around of locomotives. A lattice iron footbridge, with boarded walls and a corrugated iron roof, linked the south end of the DR platform to the GNRI station.
Goods facilities were provided to the north of the passenger station. They included sidings and a trans-shipment goods shed that was adjacent to the GNRI main line. The shed allowed goods to be transferred between the 3ft gauge DR and the 5ft 3inch GNRI in the dry. Just to the west of the goods shed there was also a single road locomotive shed that had a turntable and water tower.
To the south of the passenger station there were more sidings and a goods store.
A signal cabin controlled all CDR traffic at the station. It was located to the south of the passenger platform on the west side of the line.
The December 1895 passenger timetable showed five departures from the Strabane DR station Monday-to-Friday. The first departure was at 5.10am and it ran to Killybegs (the Donegal - Killybegs line having opened on 18 August 1893). There was then a 7.20am departure for Donegal followed by an 11.20am service for Killybegs. In the afternoons there was a 3.05pm train for Stranorlar and a 5.20pm service for Killybegs. There were five arrivals three of which came from Killybegs, one from Stranorlar and one from Donegal. The departing trains were down direction services and the arrivals were up direction trains.
The city of Derry/Londonderry is the largest settlement in the area and it has been an important trading point since the walled city was founded as part of the ‘Plantation of Ulster’ in 1613. Large amounts of the goods traffic that were handled by the DR either travelled to, or had come from, Derry/Londonderry. The only way that the DR could access that city was via the GNRI and that involved both trans-shipment and haulage costs. The solution to this problem was for the DR to build its own line to Derry/Londonderry. They submitted plans in 1896 for a line that would run to the south of the River Foyle and terminate in the Waterside district on the east bank of the river opposite Derry/Londonderry. A terminus station was to be built there called Londonderry Victoria Road. The GNRI saw this line as threat to its profits, but despite their opposition the DR successfully obtained an Act on 7 August 1896.
The new line opened to goods on 1 August 1900 and to passengers on 6 August 1900. It diverged from the 1894 line just to the north of the passenger station in Strabane. It then headed north-west passed the station goods facilities and locomotive shed before turning eastwards and passing over the GNRI main line.
Around this time additional sidings were provided both to the north and to the south of the passenger station. The locomotive shed was enlarged to a two road facility and cattle pens were added to the southern yard.
The 1904 Handbook of Stations listed Strabane DR station as being able to handle general goods, passengers and parcels, livestock, horses and private carriages.
In 1903 the Midland Railway (MR), an English company, had acquired the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway. The MR was very interested in expanding its Irish operation and it offered to purchase the DR. The GNRI saw this as a threat and tried to block it. A compromise was reached whereby both companies jointly acquired the DR. On 1 May 1906 the County Donegal Railway Joint Committee (CDR) came into being. There were six board members, three from the MR and three from the GNRI. Ownership of the Strabane to Londonderry Victoria Road line was vested solely with the MR but train services were operated by the CDR.
The CDR station had its own station master (who was paid £110.00 per annum in 1906) as did the GNRI station. Now that the GNRI was a partner in the CDR it was decided that both of the stations at Strabane would be brought under one management regime and run as a joint facility. This even extended to the uniforms of the station staff which were badged with the logos of the individual companies such as GNR/CDR/NCC.
The 1906 timetable showed five departures from Strabane in the down direction Monday-to-Saturday. The first departure was for Killybegs (on the Donegal to Killybegs branch opened on 18 August 1893) and it departed from Strabane at 5.05am. It took 3 hours and 10 minutes to complete its journey. There was then an 8.05am service to Ballyshannon, a 10.35am to Killybegs 4.00pm to Glenties and finally a 5.30pm service to Killybegs. A train from Londonderry Victoria Road which arrived at Strabane at 12.45am continued in the down direction to Stranorlar on Strabane Market & Fair Days only. In the up direction there were six trains all of which ran to Londonderry Victoria Road. The first departure was at 8.20am and the last was at 8.30pm. The journey time to Londonderry Victoria Road was 40 minutes.
A new turntable was installed in 1907 costing £304.
Further alterations were carried out at Strabane station in 1908 to facilitate the opening of the Strabane & Letterkenny Railway (S&L). The S&L line opened on 1 January 1909 and to serve it the platform was extended in length and width and provided with a west face, thereby making it into an island platform. The S&L course of the S&L line came in from the north-east and curved sharply towards the north alongside the new western face of the platform. The line continued beyond the north end of the platform where it connected to the Londonderry Victoria Road branch. As with the 1894 line a passing loop was provided to allow engines to run around their trains. The original signal cabin was demolished and a larger box in the same style as used on the NCC system was provided. It was located further to the west than the original on the east side of the Letterkenny branch. It opened in 1908.
The S&L line, which was the last narrow gauge line to be built in Ireland, was worked from the start by the CDR. With the opening of the S&L the total route mileage operated by the CDR had become 124½ miles (see the 1915 Railway Clearing House map to the right which shows the lines at Strabane as they were after the Letterkenny branch had opened).
In 1910 new gas lighting was installed at the station which was connected directly to the town supply.
The station was provided with a 5-ton lifting crane in 1912 and additional exchange sidings were installed.
In the summer of 1912 Sunday excursion services were operated from Strabane to Ballyshannon. They were promoted by the CDR as services that offered a day out at the seaside. Between 8 June and 28 September there was a departure from the station at 8.30am which arrived at Ballyshannon 2 hours 25 minutes later. Day trippers could then return from Ballyshannon at 5.45pm to be back in Strabane by 8.10pm. The following summer this Sunday service was run again but the train commenced its journey from Londonderry Victoria Road. This popular service continued until 1917 when it was withdrawn because of the Great War and it was never reinstated.
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 CDR system was used intensely during the war years but repairs and maintenance were not kept up, the company’s workshops being used for war production. Almost as soon as the fighting had stopped on 11 November 1918 the Irish War of Independence broke out. The CDR lines suffered from attacks and sabotage. The railway was a useful asset for police and military units but railway staff faced threats if they carried them. On 26 July 1920 six armed police boarded the 9.40am Strabane to Letterkenny train. The train crew and guard refused to take the train out as they had been threatened with death if they carried military or police personnel. A replacement volunteer crew was found but when they worked a train to Letterkenny on the following night, they were refused overnight accommodation in Letterkenny and had to be brought back by car. On 28 July 1920 when once again the train crew were refused overnight accommodation they decided to return to Strabane by light engine. They were ambushed at Glenmaquin with the bullets fired hitting the plating behind the driver resulting in him receiving buckshot wounds to the neck. Services on the Letterkenny branch had to be suspended on 30 July 1920 and they did not resume until 15 November 1920.
In 1921 the government relinquished control of the CDR and it was put back into the hands of its directors. The line’s problems had not gone away however as in 1921 Ireland was partitioned into two separate countries. County Tyrone became part of Northern Ireland and Country Donegal became part of the Irish Free State. The CDR now found itself operating in two separate countries with all of the administrative difficulties that had brought. The Civil that broke out in the Irish Free State in 1922 also caused further disruption to the railway, and this went on until 1923. Only the Strabane – Londonderry Victoria Road line remained unaffected being wholly within Northern Ireland.
One of the consequences of the partition was that customs facilities had to be set up at Strabane CDR station. Passengers coming into the station had crossed what had now become an international border and they were subjected to checks. This continued throughout the life of the station until 1960.
Despite the problems the CDR continued to operate train services and the July 1922 showed Strabane as having seven down direction departures. There was a 7.52am service to Killybegs, an 8.25am to Letterkenny (which departed at 7.55am on Fridays and Letterkenny Fair Days), an 11.10am to Stranorlar, a 2.00pm to Letterkenny, a 3.20pm to Killybegs, a 4.00pm and a 5.25pm to Stranorlar. In the up direction there were four departures all of which ran to Londonderry Victoria Road.
In 1923 the MR was merged into the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) and they operated their Northern Ireland lines as the Northern Counties Committee (NCC).
In late October 1926 the CDR introduced railcars onto some services that ran from Strabane. Railcars were put into service on the Stranorlar and the Letterkenny lines. The CDR was a pioneer in the use of railcars and a vehicle that it had purchased in 1907, for engineer duties, was used sporadically on occasional passenger services prior to June 1926. In June 1926 there was a coal strike and the vehicle was pressed into more intensive service and it was this experience that led the CDR to purchase 2 railcars from York in July 1926.
A railcar turntable was installed at Strabane station. It was located to the south of the signal box on the west side of the Letterkenny branch.
The CDR operated excursion trains from Strabane throughout the 1920s and 1930s, many of which ran on Sundays. Many of the trains commenced their journey at Londonderry Victoria Road and they ran to popular destinations such as Rossnowlagh and Ballyshannon.
During the Second World War (1939 to 1945) the CDR handled large volumes of cattle traffic which was moved from the Irish Free State to Northern Ireland. Much of this traffic was taken through to Londonderry Victoria Road but some was trans-shipped onto the GNRI for southbound movement. Consideration was given to converting the Strabane to Londonderry Victoria Road line to standard gauge so that military materials could be carried that way. The GNRI route to Londonderry Foyle Road passed into the Irish Free State which was a neutral country and therefore military materials could not pass that way. The conversion was deemed to be too complicated and the idea was not progressed.
After the Second World War the CDR was in poor shape but they did manage to find £400 in 1946 for the rebuilding of the refreshment and waiting rooms. The track in the goods yard was also renewed at a cost of £1,600.
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 the railways of Northern Ireland, with exception of the CDR, GNRI and the SL&NC (as they operated in two countries), were also 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. For this reason the trains on this section of the CDR network were always steam operated.
By 1953 the GNRI was no longer financially viable and it was taken into the joint ownership of the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland governments as the GNR Board. The CDR was now government owned, albeit indirectly, by the governments of two separate countries.
The UTA was notoriously anti-rail (in 1950 they had closed approximately half of the NCC network down) and in October 1954 it gave notice of its intention to close the line between Strabane and Londonderry Victoria Road. The line was by this time the only part of the UTA network that was narrow gauge. The last trains operated on that line on 31 December 1954. The last train left Strabane at 3.20pm. By this date Londonderry Victoria Road trains usually consisted of just two coaches. The last train had to be strengthened to nine coaches because of the numbers of passengers wanting to travel on it. The return working arrived back at Strabane at 7.05pm. The line came back to life temporarily on 30 June 1955 when a Sunday School excursion train carrying 600 children was run from Strabane to Londonderry Victoria Road (the children travelling onward to Portrush via the former NCC line from Londonderry Waterside). On 23 September 1955 an Order of Abandonment was made and the line between Strabane and Londonderry Victoria Road was lifted in November and December 1955.
The line to Derry/Londonderry was not the first part of the CDR worked network to close. The Stranorlar to Glenties branch (opened 3 June 1895) had closed to passengers on 15 December 1947 and completely on 10 March 1952 (goods trains having ceased from 19 September 1949). By 1957 financial losses were so great that it was obvious that the remaining lines could not survive for long. In May 1959 a formal application was made to end all railway services on the remaining CDR network. Government approval was granted and last passenger services operated on 31 December 1959. The last passenger departure from Strabane was a steam hauled service to Stranorlar consisting of the locomotive Drumboe and five coaches. Ordinarily the service would have been a railcar but many people had turned out to ride on the very last train, which departed from Strabane at 7.40pm and arrived at Stranorlar at 8.21pm.
As soon as passenger services had ceased track lifting between Strabane station and Lifford bridge (on the Letterkenny branch) began and the work was finished by 25 January 1960. This work was carried out so that the Lifford bridge could be converted for road use so that replacement buses from Letterkenny could run to the former GNRI station (which had been under full UTA control since September 1958).
An interim service of freight trains between Strabane CDR station and Stranorlar ran until 6 February 1960 with an occasional train running after that date. An American Millionaire, Dr Ralph Cox, had become interested in the CDR when he visited Ireland on holiday in 1959. He purchased four steam engines, three railcars, ten coaches, twenty covered wagons, twenty wagon chassis and infrastructure items such as rails and fastenings with a view to moving it all to the USA. Some of the rolling stock was moved along the former FVR section of line to Strabane CDR station to await collection. Track lifting of the former FVR between Strabane and Stranorlar began in September 1960.
The CDR station however continued to perform a transport function after the last passenger trains had run on xx December 1959. The CDR continued to operate as a bus and lorry haulage company. At Strabane buses operated on the routes previously served by trains and they used the CDR station as a terminus. Passengers were still able to make connections at Strabane but now it was between buses and the trains of the UTA. The south end of the passenger station remained in use for passengers who used it as a route between the point at which the buses parked up and the footbridge (although most passengers preferred to cross the lines using the barrow crossing). The roof and sides of the footbridge were blown off on 16 September 1961 during ‘Hurricane Debbie’. They were not replaced and the footbridge became an open structure.
Once the 3ft gauge track had been cleared from the transhipment shed area it was paved over so that the CDR lorries could draw up there for the purpose of loading/unloading onto UTA goods trains.
The UTA had no interest in continuing to operate the former GNRI line through Strabane (by this time consisting only of the route between Londonderry Foyle Road and Portadown) and they succeeded in closing it on 15 February 1965. That line was lifted in the early months of 1966 and both of the Strabane stations became increasingly derelict. The rolling stock that had been purchased by Dr Cox andstored in Strabane still remained stored at the station. The shipment costs for moving his purchases had proved to be prohibitive.
Devoid of track Strabane CDR station fell into a state of dereliction after the closure of the Derry road in 1965 and in 1989 after all of the rolling stock items that still remained were cleared away the remains of both stations were demolished to make way for a road scheme.
Full size copies of the Donegal Railway Company poster (shown above) can be purchased from the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre