As the final Swilly buses pulled into stations across the North West recently, the doors closed on a company that had beat the odds to become a central feature of local life for more than 150 years.
Since its inception in Victorian times, the Lough Swilly bus company had become something of a local legend.
Its fleet of trains and the buses which replaced them were an instantly recognisable part of the local landscape, and right up to the end were viewed as a vital life-line connecting Derry and Letterkenny with isolated rural communities across Inishowen and west Donegal.
Rail historian Jim McBride says that the company was unique in that it had survived the partition of Ireland, the World Wars, the Troubles and decades of financial difficulties up to this point.
“The closure marks the loss of one of the oldest transport companies in the world,” Mr McBride said.
“This company has been in existence since 1853 providing transport services to the people of the North West and Donegal for 150 years. It has been a unique survivor.”
Mr McBride said the Swilly survived because it adapted to changing infrastructure, making the switch to buses as early as 1929 while still struggling on with its steam engine trains until their eventual closure in 1953.
At the heights of its operational activity, the ‘Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway Company’, as it officially remained up until it’s closure last month, ran trains along 99 miles of track in two directions.
Six miles of tracks along the docklands at Derry’s quays provided a link for cargo from overseas to reach far flung towns and places, and visa versa.
One route saw trains running from the terminus at Strand Road beside Long’s, through Buncrana Road to Bridgend (where the customs were stationed), and from there on to Buncrana and Carndonagh.
The other route saw the train travel from Derry to Letterkenny and on to the west coast of Donegal at Burtonport.
Mr McBride said that the extreme poverty in the North west region and the poor road infrastructure had ensured the railway line had lasted as long as it did.
“It is a great pity,” he said. “If it had lasted another decade or so it could have been a major tourist attraction, like the preserved railways of Wales. It could have been a major attraction today as a steam heritage railway.”
He added: “After Partition, only a few miles of the Swilly were in the north and the vast majority of its network was in Donegal, in some of the most impoverished areas of Ireland, running through some of the most remote parts of Ireland to put it mildly.
“It operated its last train 61 years ago and was always clinging on by its finger tips but it survived the worst days of the Troubles and it was a remarkable public service to the people of Derry and the North West.
“Some of the building and architecture survive to this day like the Drift Inn building in Buncrana and the building in Carndonagh, but unfortunately nothing in Derry.
“It also ran the largest and most powerful steam engines on the Irish narrow gauge system. They were built for the line to Burtonport, which was a six hour journey.
“There would have been cattle, coal and goods transported along the line as well as passengers. The line from Letterkenny to Burtonport was just under 50 miles long.
“There was also a great detour, which avoided any major towns on route, with stations in the middle of nowhere, all to save money. It was said in years gone by the Swilly stopped where nobody lived.
“The line to Carndonagh shut in 1935 and was replaced by buses. Buncrana stayed open until 1953 and was especially important after the war years when it was cheaper to keep it open because of a shortage in getting fuel for alternatives.”
There was also smuggling that went on, and Mr McBride there were tales of people hanging the goods off one side of train while the inspectors searched the other side at the customs patrol.
“Rationing was very severe in the north and people in Derry would have went across to get things like butter, eggs and milk. There are stories about women who weren’t pregnant when they got the train from Derry but appeared heavily pregnant when they came back the same evening.
“The Letterkenny line stayed open until 1953 but in 1940 it closed at Gweedore but was forced to reopen because of the appalling state of the roads and the effects of the World War.
“The Gweedore to Letterkenny route lasted until 1947 because of the effects of the war.
“One interesting point to notew is that the Swilly carriages never had heating, some of them had lighting later on but they were always impoverished.”
Mr McBride added that the winding up the company really was the end of an era and the closing chapter on a remarkable journey for a fondly remembered and unique survivor.