‘He viewed the Derry railway lines with the dead eye of an undertaker’

October 1964 - Interior image of the Great Northern Railway Station at Foyle Road.
October 1964 - Interior image of the Great Northern Railway Station at Foyle Road.

In 1963, on May Day appropriately enough, Henry Benson’s report recommending the closure of both the Northern Counties Committee (NCC) and Great Northern Railway (GNR) lines to Derry landed on Bill Craig’s desk for the first time, writes Kevin Mullan.

He was Minister of Home Affairs back then prior to his career as a Vanguard leader alongside the late Derry loyalist Glen Barr a decade later.

Mr Benson - an English accountant - had taken his lead from Dr. Richard Beeching, who in his ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ had recommended decimating the British railway system by closing a third of its 7,000 stations.

By late October in 1963, Northern Ireland’s MPs had had a chance to properly digest the shocking report and it finally came before the House by way of a Private Member’s Motion from Unionist MP for St Anne’s in Belfast, Edward Warnock.

Just after 3 p.m. on the afternoon of November 5, 1963, Mr. Warnock moved that the report be taken into consideration.

Addressing Northern Ireland’s MPs at Stormont he referred to the hugely controversial proposal to close the two Derry lines.

“Mr. Benson is a very distinguished Englishman, but I doubt very much whether he can fully appreciate the place which Londonderry has in all our affections, regardless of political affiliations,” he told the House.

“In 1920 when the borders of Northern Ireland were being fixed it was finally decided that the limitations of our area should be fixed by reference to the geographical boundaries of the six constituent counties.

“It was the great misfortune of Londonderry that she became thereby a frontier city.

“For generations the City of Londonderry particularly had looked for social, economic, commercial and agricultural contact with East Donegal and the Inishowen Peninsula.

“As a result of the boundary settlement made in 1920 Londonderry was faced with a boundary wall and at one blow all her valuable long-standing extensive contacts with East Donegal and the peninsula were cut off. To this day Londonderry has never fully recovered from that blow. I cannot believe that any scheme or proposal to isolate Londonderry and strike another blow at her prosperity would be accepted by this House,” he added.

This was, of course, before the Mathew Plan (1964) recommended the investment of £140m in the establishment of the ‘New City’ of Craigavon, and the Lockwood and Wilson reports (1965) recommended Coleraine as the site of the North’s second university, and focused the concentration of industrial development mainly around Belfast, respectively.

Nonetheless in late 1963, Mr. Warnock went on to describe Mr. Benson’s proposal as “immediate death” and argued that no final decision should be made on the Benson report for some years to come.

Mr. Warnock also hinted at the eventual fudge on the issue, which saw the NCC line retained and the GNR closed.

He stated: “If this House in its wisdom decides that we cannot afford two lines to Londonderry but that we should and can afford one the next question, this is probably the biggest question of all, is which of the two lines is to be sacrificed on the altar of economy.”

Unionist MP for the City of Derry, Edward W. Jones, who would later become Northern Ireland Attorney General, questioned Mr. Benson’s sums in justifying the Derry line closures. He said the accountant had miscounted - deliberately or otherwise - passenger usage on the Derry line.

He stated: “The figures for Belfast to Londonderry are not given as a block. Was it because it was shown that 245,191 people travel between Londonderry and Belfast?

“I did not think up that figure; it is taken from the Report in this manner. As there are no true figures for the journey Belfast to Londonderry, if one takes the smallest figure of travel on the way 155,332, I think, between one station on the NCR line and 89,869 between one set of stations on the GNR line, one gets a total of 245,191.

“I suggest that we are therefore entitled to assume that that number of people are using both railways between Londonderry and Belfast and if one works out that figure and the number of journeys it turns into this-that the number of people using that link is about 8 per cent of the population. I suggest accordingly that this Report shows that, so far from being underused, the rail facilities between Belfast and Londonderry are aptly used so as to justify their retention.”

Intriguingly, West Tyrone Nationalist MP Roderick O’Connor - a close colleague of Eddie McAteer - claimed the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA) had long been hopelessly biased in favour of the roads.

The UTA no longer exists. It was succeeded by the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company (NITHC) - or Translink, as it’s now commonly known - in 1967.

But back then Mr. O’Connor claimed of the UTA, and more broadly, the old Stormont regime: “Every schoolboy knows that the Northern Government has been road-minded and that the UTA was in active and vigorous competition with the railways with a view to putting them out of existence.

“The right hon. and learned Member for St. Anne’s (Mr. Warnock), who made a very interesting opening to this discussion, said we were not ourselves to blame for the position in which we find ourselves.

“I think he was too kind in his criticism. We are to blame and completely to blame for not having taken the reasonable and proper steps to preserve our railways as an essential public service.”

He went on to accuse Mr. Benson of presiding over the “inhumation” of the North’s railways.

“The hon. and learned Member said that Mr. Henry Benson had viewed the situation with the cold eye of an accountant. I prefer to say that he viewed it with the dead eye of an undertaker,” he said.

During the debate, Unionist MP for North Derry Joseph Burns conceded people were not using the railways to the degree they might have.

But he said Translink’s predecessor might have positively affected this by cutting rail charges.

“Let me be quite frank, the people of this country are not using the railways either for passenger traffic or for freight and the trains are running empty,” he said.

“I believe that instead of doing away with the railways the time has come when the freight charges and the passenger fares should be drastically reduced. The UTA on both railways and roads is pricing itself out of the market,” said Mr. Burns.