The Sunday Journal goes back in time to recall the heyday of the ‘Derry Road’ - the Great Northern Railway’s famous Portadown to Derry line
The Great Northern (GNR) was Ireland’s second largest railway which, at its peak, boasted more than 600 route miles of track.
The GNR is held in great affection by many enthusiasts who either worked for it or travelled on it.
The cross-border stretch of line from Omagh to Derry, in particular, is remembered with great fondness right across the North West.
Railway historian Tom Ferris - in his fascinating account of the history of the GNR - recalls that the Great Northern route from Belfast to Derry was about five miles longer than the other line between these two cities - the route linking Belfast York Road to Waterside station on the opposite bank of the River Foyle to the GNR’s Foyle Road terminus.
What became the GNR line was built in two parts.
The section from Derry to Omagh - via Carrigans, St Johnston, Porthall, Strabane, Sion Mills, Victoria Bridge, and Newtownstewart - was opened in stages between 1847 and 1852 by the Londonderry & Enniskillen Railway.
The other part of the route, from Portadown Junction to Dungannon, was opened in 1858 and from there to Omagh in 1862, by the Portadown, Dungannon & Omagh Railway - a company heavily backed by the Ulster Railway.
The section from Portadown to Dungannon was relatively flat. Apart from a viaduct over the River Blackwater at Vernersbridge, the only engineering feature of note was a tunnel of about 800 yards in length just south of Dungannon station, built at the insistence of the local landowner, Lord Northland, who did not want the view across his estate spoiled by the passage of trains.
Beyond Dungannon, the railway had to cross the foothills of the Sperrin Mountains. The summit of this eight mile climb was between Pomeroy and Carrickmore.
The line was as steep as 1 in 70 and 1 in 80 in short stretches on either side of the summit, which at 561 feet above sea level was the highest point on the GNR, though the short-lived and long-closed Castleblayney to Keady line had once scaled a greater height than this.
Leaving the black Sperrin uplands behind, the nature of the line changed again north of Omagh as it followed the valleys of the Strule and Mourne rivers to reach Strabane, crossing these rivers seven times on this wonderfully picturesque stretch of railway.
The final 15 miles into Derry followed the County Donegal bank of the River Foyle and were virtually level.
The 1960s, says Tom Ferris, were a “whacky and surreal decade” with transport planners arguing that there should only be one railway route between two places.
In the south, says Ferris, such logic had seen off the Harcourt Street line from Dublin to Bray in 1958, another line, like the Derry Road, which should never have been closed - but, unlike the old Derry line, is now being revived.
Add to this the Ulster Transport Authority’s antipathy to railways, the Stormont government’s passion for roads and a much whispered but never proven conspiracy on the part of those in high places to isolate the west of the province and focus investment east of the River Bann, and the poor old Derry Road never had a chance.
Tom Ferris says its closure, in February 1965, left a “huge gap which today blemishes the railway map of Ireland”.
“If you head due south from Derry today,” he writes, “you will not encounter a railway line with a passenger service until you reach Mullingar!”
Tom Ferris says the Great Northern had a “long run”, from 1876 to 1958, and in those years, as well as providing safe and reliable trains for a large part of the north of Ireland, it earned the respect and admiration of those who used those services... “It lodged itself in the affection of those who study and admire railways.”
‘The Great Northern Railway: An Irish Railway Pictorial’, by Tom Ferris, is published by Midland Publishing.