Belfast Telegraph

Rail buffs still steamed up over Comber to Newcastle line's closure 70 years ago

A train operating on the line
A train operating on the line
A train operating on the line
Passengers and rail staff

By Christopher Leebody

Railway enthusiasts have recalled the closure of a once-vital Co Down transport link on the 70th anniversary of the halting of the trains.

On January 15, 1950 railway stations between Comber and Newcastle were shut as part of the removal of the Belfast and County Down line.

Later that year further stops at Dundonald and Donaghadee ceased operations on the line, marking an end to 100 years of railway transport in that part of Ulster.

Seven decades later Robert Gardiner, chairman of the Downpatrick & County Down Railway (DCDR) heritage group, said that, even today, residents find it "remarkable" the decision to close the line was taken.

"Even 70 years later, if you ask anyone, the number one thing they say is that they should never have taken away the railway line," he insisted.

"They are amazed when they know that we used to have such a huge railway network.

"It seems incredible today to think that such a vital transport link could be easily discarded.

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"I think it would be dramatic if the lines were reopened.

"In terms of reconnecting communities, it would feel like undoing some of the harm that was done."

The 1940s saw the government of Northern Ireland announce an amalgamation of the three major railway companies into the newly formed Ulster Transport Authority, a predecessor to Translink.

This integrated transport system saw investment diverted from the rail network to what was seen at the time as the increasingly important expansion of bus infrastructure.

"In 1950 the ministers in the devolved Stormont government took the view that railways were as obsolete as the stagecoach," added Mr Gardiner.

"The attitude of Stormont was that it would be cheaper to move everything to the roads than to invest in railways that had been run down during the Second World War; people would use the buses instead.

"Investment since then in new technologies in track, signalling and rolling stock over those years have showed what we could have had throughout Northern Ireland. Even then, in 1948, an express train from Comber to Belfast could get you into the old Queen's Quay station near the Odyssey Arena in 15 minutes.

"Despite the investment in the Glider and other public transport initiatives, nothing has come close to replicating that speed and efficiency." These days the memory of the track is kept alive through a reconstructed two-mile section of the line by the DCDR group, alongside the memories of those who once worked on the line.

Adam Hamilton was a fireman who stoked the boilers on the steam locomotives.

He still regrets the closure.

"It broke my heart, because the railways were in my blood. I still hear the sound of the steam still running on a clear night, puffing away," he said.

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