Old Railway Station

Vol. 5 No. 3 - 1987

The old railway station, Portadown

by Harold E. McIntyre

Today, where the old railway station at the Edenderry end of Portadown once stood, motor cars, buses and trucks hurtle past on the Northway link road to the Ml. Is it not ironic that the motor car, which contributed most to the decline of the railway, should now proclaim its supremacy on territory that was for so long the very heart of the railway system in Portadown?

Standing at the head of Watson Street, the solid, rather shabby building would hardly have met the acclaim of a Sir John Betjeman, but by the countless hordes who passed through its portals it was remembered mostly with affection.

The old railway station, Portadown

The stone flagged concourse gave access to No.1 platform from where one could see the four platforms, each 200 yds in length, stretching out in line abreast towards the river Bann. There were two signal boxes, one at either end of the station, with a third one, somewhat larger, less than a quarter of a mile away, on the other side of the river. The numerous buildings were sited on the two flanking platforms, Nos. 1 and 4. Among the most important of those on No 1 platform were the GPO Sorting Office (now sited at Mill Avenue), two refreshment rooms, with living accommodation above, and no less than six waiting rooms. Two more waiting rooms and a refreshment room were sited on No 4 platform, and it would appear that the needs and comforts of the travelling public received not only first class attention, but second and third class too; for that is what the signs on the various doors proclaimed.

Up to ninety trains a day

Life at the station in its heyday must have been exciting, when up to ninety trains stopped there or passed through during the twenty four hour operational day. Only from midnight Saturday to 8.00 am Sunday was there a brief respite, and every day of the year, including Christmas, was a working day.

Along those platforms, flagged in lovely Dungannon sandstone, countless feet passed to and fro as passengers hastened for a train. Workmen who helped to build the Titanic made their daily journey to the shipyard from there; men who were to die in two world wars made their last journey from there and countless generations of children made their single yearly trip to the seaside, on Sunday School excursions from those platforms. There was so much hustle and bustle when all the platforms had trains alongside them; some people missed their train; others got into the wrong train and found themselves on the way to places like Newry when maybe Dungannon was their choice of destination. There was no public address system to keep them right, no illuminated destination board, with the names of the stations flickering round and round; only a porter, striving to make himself heard above the hiss of steam and the rattle of barrows, as he shouted out the train's destination.

Small wonder that a story was told of two commercial travellers who had to change trains late in the evening, at Portadown. They enquired of a porter if they would have time to have a meal and on being told that they would they adjourned to the refreshment room.

The meal partaken one looked at his watch and said, 'It's almost twenty to eight, we had better go for our train" the other replied, "I thought the porter said twenty past eight, let us check". so they checked with the porter and that worthy replied, "I didn't say twenty to eight and I didn't say twenty past eight, I said that you had twenty minutes to ate, and you have been ateing for half an hour and you have missed your train".

So much for the passengers; what of the staff? Apart from the stationmaster and his clerks there were engine-drivers and firemen, signalmen and bell-boys, guards and shunters, ticket collectors and porters, electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters, masons, platelayers and many others and they all had something in common; a love for tea. Black cans for brewing tea could be found in every signalbox and workshop and on the footplate of every engine, and what a wonderful brew they made.

Tea brewed in a black can was to pot-brewed tea as vintage is to table wine. It is an odd fact that most of the cans had originally been snuff containers Gallagher's must have produced a colossal amount of snuff in those days, to release all those snuff cans for conversion to tea cans (railwaymen. for the use of). Railwaymen have electric kettles now and bottled gas, and teapots; and where would one see a snuff can let alone snuff?

Over the years many well known characters came and departed, suffice to mention one: Leslie Adams, the elfin wisecracking ticket collector who gained fame on the Wilfred Pickles radio show, "Have a Go", when he came out with quips such as, "A woman asked me how long is the next train to Belfast and I said, five carriages and the engine".

The hub of the north

What lay beyond the station where that third signalbox stood? Why, that was the junction, the hub of the railway, the hub of Portadown and Portadown was the hub of the north. Here the tracks split and spread out in three directions. like a giant fleur-de-lis, the centre track heading straight as an arrow, for Armagh and on to the boggy Cavan countryside. On its left, leaving Portadown, was the unique round house engine shed, constructed in 1926 in mass concrete, with its twelve tracks within the shed radiating out from the turntable, like the ribs in an open fan.

The track which turned off sharply to the left was the main line to Dublin, the only one to survive to this day. On its way it crosses the magnificent quarter mile long Craigmore Viaduct, with its eighteen arches and at 150 feet high, the highest Viaduct in Ireland. A structure in Newry granite, it is a thing of beauty and a memorial to supreme workmanship.

The track on the right was the Londonderry line which passed through some of the loveliest scenery in Ireland as it ran between Newtownstewart and Victoria Bridge, with the Mourne river on its left for most of the way. The lines to Londonderry and Cavan are gone; lopped off, like the branches of a tree, and the truncated system, weakened by the amputations, could not resist the advance of motorway development. The old station at Watson Street, standing in the way of this advance, had to yield.

There is little left at Watson Street to remind one that a great station once stood there. Great stacks of materials, which will be used in the laying of continuous welded track, are stored there and we are told that when all this track has been laid that the present permitted overall maximum speed will be increased from 70 to 90 M.P.H. Not many people know that on a foggy morning on the 11th day of February 19I8 a one coach train ran from to Belfast to Dublin in 1 hour 48 minutes (Today's Enterprise time is l hour 55 minutes) at an average speed of 62 M.P.H. and that it reached its highest speed of almost 86 M.P.H. between Lurgan and Portadown doing the journey between those stations in 3 minutes 30 seconds.

16/9/2006: No.186 rumbles over the Lagan canal and onto the level crossing at Moira, hauling one of the "Country Comes to Town" trains from Portadown to Lisburn. (B. Goodfellow) - www.steamtrainsireland.com

Steam has gone for ever, except for the Railway Preservation Society, and the last of the great trains has long since pulled out of the old station but memory recalls the scene as:

"With three great snorts of strength,
Stretching my mighty length,
Like some long dragon stirring in sleep,
Out from the glare of gas, into the night I pass,
And plunge alone into the silence deep".

"Night Express" W C Monkhouse.