Railways in Craigavon

Vol. 2 No. 2 - 1973

Railways in Craigavon

by Charles P. Friel

With the current interest in our Society in industrial archaeology, the time may be ripe to take a look at the railways in our area.

The first public railway in the Craigavon district was the Ulster Railway, which was opened in stages between 1839 and 1863. The original aim of the Ulster was to "lay a line of rails from the town of Belfast to the city of Armagh" although this was later revised to extend to Clones.

The first trains of the Ulster ran between Lisburn and Belfast in 1839 and the building of the line towards Lurgan progressed slowly under the direction of the contractor William Dargan - indeed a Board of Works loan of £20,000 was needed to build the line. Trains first ran into Lurgan on 18th November 1841 and on 31st January 1842 a temporary terminus was brought into operation at Seagoe on the outskirts of Portadown. Because of the soft nature of the ground it was not until 12th September 1842 that the Ulster made it to its new station at Watson Street, Portadown. It is worth noting that between 1841 and 1844 there was a station at Pritchard's Bridge near Kilmore - to this day one can see the extensive stonework at the site which is situated between Kerr's bridge (at the motorway) and Kilmore crossing.

Portadown Railway Station
Early photograph of the railway station (now sadly demolished).

The Watson Street station was built in what was later to become the car park of the station recently demolished - indeed there was evidence in the car park of one corner of the station building while the lately vacated station master's house was almost contemporaneous. At this time the Ulster Railway's dividend averaged 5% and the fare from Lisburn to Belfast, third class, was sixpence - at that time,of course, third class accommodation was simply an open wagon with a few seats fixed in an open wagon.

Irish standard gauge

During the construction of the line to Portadown, a row blew up about the gauge of railways in the country. The Ulster had adopted a gauge of 6 feet 2 inches between the rails, but near Dublin the Dublin and Kingstown (the first line in Ireland) were using a gauge of 4 feet 81/2 inches (the English standard), while the proposed Dublin and Drogheda Railway intended to lay to a gauge of 5 feet 2 inches. Foreseeing the obvious confusion and future difficulties, the Board of Trade stepped into the ring and, after consulting the eminent railway engineers of the day, decreed a new Irish standard gauge of 5 feet 3 inches, for future railway construction.

At this stage the Ulster were ready to extend their line to Armagh and it was laid to the new gauge, but first of all the river Bann had to be crossed. The new river bridge was a timber-built five arch affair and this led to the building of a new station in Portadown on a site at Woodhouse Street (a location now occupied by the new station). The line to Armagh was opened on 1st March 1848.

Portadown became a junction on 6th January 1852 when the northern section of the Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway was opened between Portadown and Mullaghglass (about 1½ miles beyond Goraghwood. The bridging of the valley at Bessbrook delayed the running of through trains to just north of Drogheda until 1852 ; the difficult Boyne Viaduct at Drogheda was not completed until 1855.

Another railway line radiated from Portadown towards Omagh and this, the Portadown Dungannon and Omagh Junction, was opened from Portadown to a point a mile short of Dungannon on 5th April 1858. However, the Board of Trade's inspectors weren't satisfied with the signalling controlling the new part of the junction and for a few months passengers from Dungannon had to detrain at a temporary platform near Curran Street (then called Bow Lane) and walk to the station in Woodhouse Street.

Problem solved!

With the increasing movements in and around the station, with trains and engines of three separate companies interchanging traffic and rolling stock, things became very congested indeed. These problems were aggravated by a level crossing at the Armagh end of the station where Woodhouse Street met Obins Street. The continual opening and closing of the gates caused annoying delays to both road and rail.

The problem was solved by cutting an under-pass below the railway and lowering the level of a hundred yards or so of the street on either side of the line. This work, completed in 1861 gave Portadown its famous "Tunnel". Traces of the old level of Obins Street are still to be seen along its western side.

By 1863 the congestion had become really acute and a radical solution was called for It took the form of a completely new passenger station on the eastern bank of the Bann which left a large site at Woodhouse Street to be developed as a goods station only. The moving of the passenger station met with considerable opposition) but the move went ahead. At first the station had only two platforms but it later acquired a further two and the whole covered by an overall roof. The new station building has been described as:

"Architecturally ... Victorian with a very mechanical appearance ... the entrance was very well emphasised [although] the proportions were none too good".

The symmetry of the building was spoiled by the inclusion, at its eastern end of the two-storey goods store of the original (1842-1863) station.

I should mention here that some old maps of Portadown show a siding extending down to the river bank, below the bridge, where there was a small harbour. Information on this is scant, but the siding seems to have disappeared with the building of this new station. One reference quotes "a pier for the boats to Lough Neagh" at the place, while another suggests that merchandise was transhipped to Newry canal vessels for onwards shipment before the completion of the railway line to Dublin and (later) to Newry.

In 1871 the wooden bridge of 1846 was replaced by a stone and iron bridge - stone abutments with the wrought-iron lattice-girder span supported by two piers each of three pillars of cast iron. As train weights increased the structure of the bridge caused some anxiety and the bridge superstructure was removed in 1908., although the lattice work of the 1871 bridge remains.

Formation of the Great Northern Railway (Ireland).

In 1875 the Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway merged with its southern neighbour the Dublin and Drogheda, to form the Northern Railway Company (Ireland). The Ulster Railway was reluctant to forsake its independence and throw its lot in with the weaker companies. As a sort of counter-offensive the Ulster and Portadown, Dungannon and Omagh companies merged in 1876, but in April that year they joined the Northern to form the Great Northern Railway (Ireland).

As befitted a major railway junction) Portadown boasted one of the largest locomotive sheds outside Belfast, Dublin and Cork. Before 1925, however, Portadown shed was a small affair with awkward facilities and access, but in that year a new roadhouse was built in West Street, which structure remained until very recently. During the evacuations for the site of the 1925 shed, the spoil was dumped to the north side of the passenger station to form the foundations for the carriage sidings. It is of interest to note that the engines used to haul the spoil had been used in the building of the line from Armagh to Keady and Castleblayney.

It might be mentioned here that when, in the late 1870's, the Great Northern were looking around for a site on which to centralise its locomotive work, Portadown was settled on as the venue. Records of where that site would have been do not appear to have survived) but we do know that the Great Northern look its locomotive works to Dundalk as the "landowners of Portadown ask too high a price". From an historian's point of view; little changed on the Portadown or Lurgan railway scene from the early 1900's, although railway students still had much of interest in the development of locomotives, rolling stock, services and facilities down the years.

The end of the line

September 30th 1957 was a black day for railways in Northern Ireland, for on that date the services lo Armagh and Clones, and many other lines as well came to an end. The GNR(I) had become a semi-state body; the Great Northern Railway (Board) in 1953 and in 1957 when the GNR(B) was taken over by the Ulster Transport Authority closures were the order of the day. The services to Dungannon, Omagh and Derry disappeared eight years later on 14th February 1965, only six weeks after Newry and Warrenpoint were denuded of their railway links. At this time too freight trains disappeared from our railways and a little later the UTA too gave way to Northern Ireland Railways.

In October 1971 the 1863 station at Watson Street was replaced by a new, ultra-modern station at Woodhouse Street, on the site of the 1948 building - the wheel had almost come full circle.