Lough Swilly Railway

On September 24, 2020 by Kathleen Travers

For people in this corner of Ireland, the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company is very much part of our history and heritage. Known as the “L&LSR”, “The Swilly Railway” or “The wee Donegal railway”, its operation still holds a fascination for many, both here and abroad, reaching back to the mid nineteenth century and only finally ceasing trading in 2014.

Advertising poster for L&LSR.

Intended to link Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly across the Inishowen peninsula in north Donegal, and having superseded a plan to connect these two bodies of water by canal, the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway was incorporated in 1860. The catchment area of the railway that was eventually to become the L&LSR was all that area of County Donegal extending from Derry westwards to Letterkenny and beyond, and northwards to either side of Lough Swilly itself. On the face of it, an unlikely setting for a railway, yet it was through this countryside that Irelands second largest narrow gauge railway was built, and on which some some of the most impressive steam engines to run on the Irish  narrow gauge operated.

The engineer of the line was the Sir John MacNeill. The railway opened on the last day of 1863 as a 5ft 3in standard gauge line, running from Derry to Farland Point where there would be steamer connections throughout the Lough and beyond, and a branch to Buncrana. Unfortunately the service to Farland point was very little used, the steamer timings not being under the railway company’s control, but that to Buncrana flourished.

As a result, the Farland branch was abandoned and the L&LSR concentrated all its services on the line to Buncrana. Farland was closed in 1866.

Since the mid 1850s several projects had been mooted to bring the market town of Letterkenny into the railway network and this led to the incorporation of the Letterkenny Railway Company by the act of Parliament in 1860.

After some 20 years of discussion and delay, the Letterkenny Railway opened on 30th June 1883 from Cuttymanhill to Letterkenny to a gauge of 3ft. It was worked by the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway, and absorbed by them in 1887. To avoid transhipment, and under pressure from the Government, the Company relaid its original line to 3ft gauge in 1885. In 1901 the Company extended its line from Buncrana to Carndonagh with a Government grant of 80% of the costs. The 49¾ mile Burtonport extension of 1903 was worked by the L&LSR with nominally separate engines and stock. The Company operated 100 route miles in 1911.

The early decades of the twentieth century saw the L&LSR at its most developed, with a fleet of steam locomotives as well as coach and goods rolling stock. These years saw the heyday of the company, Paddle steamers connected with the trains at Fahan pier and ran services to Ramelton, Rathmullan and Portsalon.

This was to change as events of the time conspired against it. The war of independence left its mark. Trains were often the means of transport for British troops and local staff frequently refused to operate them. The railway was attacked and damaged so as to prevent troop trains from running and on at least one occasion a mail train with plain clothed British agents aboard was attacked and a running gun battle ensued.

After partition the L&LSR was not included in the Great Southern Railway merger of 1925 since 3 miles of its line were on the wrong side of the border. It continued to keep its equipment in first class condition. It decided to transfer the whole of its business to road transport. A disaster occurred on the evening of 30 January 1925 at around 8pm at the Owencarrow Viaduct near Creeslough.

A wind storm with gusts topping 110mph derailed the carriages of the train at the viaduct.

On that evening, an engine pulling  a wagon, two carriages and a van was travelling on Burtonport Extension. Until then, there had been no serious accidents, and only two incidents which resulted in fatalities on the line. Owencarrow Viaduct was known to be dangerous in bad weather, and a strong windstorm raged that night. The train approached the viaduct, which was 420 yards in length, at a slow speed of only 10 miles per hour. The train had just departed Kilmacrennan Station at 7:52 pm, around eight minutes earlier.

When the train was 50 yards onto the viaduct, there was an extremely strong gust of wind, which blew the carriage next to the engine off the rails. The driver immediately stopped the train. When the train came to a halt, the back carriage had carried the wagons halfway over the wall of the bridge. The second carriage was lying on the embankment, the covered wagon was lying over the parapet and the passenger carriage was upside down.

A L&LSR railway staff used to ensure that only one train is on a section of line at a time. It was passed to the driver by an attendant on the platform. This one is marked Carndonagh -Clonmany.

The wind had lifted two of the  coaches off the rails and left them upside down. Their roofs were smashed and passengers were thrown from the carriages into the valley below. The engine kept the rails however, and the couplings linking the wagons held, suspending the coaches over the parapet. Of the fourteen passengers who had been on the train that evening, four were killed, nine injured, only one escaping unscathed, a young woman, who was thrown clear and landed in a patch of soft soil.The lines from Buncrana to Carndonagh and from Gweedore to Burtonport were abandoned in 1935 and 1940 respectively. The closure of the remainder of the system had to be deferred due to Second World War shortages of petrol and oil for the replacement road services. By the end of the war years the Company was carrying nearly 500,000 passengers per annum on its rail services from Derry to Buncrana and Gweedore.

With the ending of hostilities the line from Letterkenny to Gweedore was in a dangerous state of disrepair and the Company re-embarked on its policy of replacing rail services by road transport. The daily goods service between Letterkenny and Gweedore was withdrawn in January 1947, the line finally closing in June. Regular passenger services ceased on the Derry to Buncrana and Tooban Junction to Letterkenny sections in September 1948. Freight workings and occasional passenger specials continued on these lines until 8th August 1953 when the remaining rail services, immaculately turned out to the last, were withdrawn.

The L&LSR continued to operate road services even after the Company was sold in 1981. By this time, the L&LSR had become one of the longest-lived railway companies in either Ireland or Britain, having outlasted nearly all the others by many years.

The “Swilly” buses continued to run until it closed down on Saturday 19 April 2014, having gone into liquidation. The final service was a bus from Derry at 18.00 to Letterkenny.

A note on four of the larger engines operated by L&LSR.

The company employed around 20 steam locomotive engines over the course of its 90 years of rail operations.

Both of these classes of large engine can be considered together, as one was in effect a tank version of the other.

There were two engines of each class: the 4-8-0s came first, in 1905, Nos. 11 and 12 in the Company’s stock, and the 4-8-4Ts followed in 1912, Nos. 5 and 6. All were built by Hudswell Clarke & Co.

Engine no. 12; 4-8-0

They were noteworthy in several respects. They were the first engines in Ireland to have 8-coupled wheels. The 4-8-0s were the only Irish narrow gauge tender engines, and the 4-8-4Ts were the largest and most powerful engines to run on any gauge as narrow as 3’ 0” in these islands, in fact from their massive appearance at close quarters they might well have been taken for standard gauge machines. In one other respect both classes were also unique, in that they were the only examples of a 4-8-0 tender engine or a 4-8-4T ever to run in  Britain and Ireland.


Engine no.5; 4-8-4 tank. Survived till closure. Scrapped in 1954.

They were built primarily for working over the long 74-mile line from Derry to Burtonport, although in later years the 4-8-4Ts were not often seen on this section. No.11 was scrapped in 1933, No.12 remained to the end, but was little used after the closing of the Burtonport extension in the early 1940s. Nos. 5 and 6 were also retained until the complete closure of the remainder of the line in 1953, when they were cut up. A sad end for these wonderful pieces of early twentieth century engineering.

John McCarron, July 2020






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