Problems for Railway Transport

Vol. 6 No. 2 - 1991

Problems for railway transport in Northern Ireland - 60 years ago

by Arnold Sleator

d. 30 Nov. 2020

Northern Ireland has an area of 5,237 square miles. In 1934 the population was estimated at 1,251,000. Belfast, Londonderry and other urban areas (with a population of 10,000 or over) accounted for 554,000 leaving the remaining 697,000 in what for practical purposes would be regarded as rural areas.

We can therefore only marvel at the zeal of railway entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland before that time, for no less than 9 railway systems served an area smaller than Yorkshire with a total route mileage of 754 miles, made up of 630 miles of 5' 3" gauge and 124 miles of 3' gauge. The companies involved were:

  • Great Northern Railway Company (Ireland).
  • London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company (Northern Counties Committee).
  • Belfast and County Down Railway Company.
  • Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway Company.
  • Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company.
  • Strabane and Letterkenny Railway Company.
  • Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway Company.
  • Clougher Valley Railway Company.
  • County Donegal Railways Joint Committee.
Omnibus competition

Ten years previous to 1924, omnibus competition began to become acute for the railways and this is illustrated by using figures from the Great Northern Railway.

Table 1

Volume Details of Railway Traffic
Year Number of Passengers Merchandise (Tons) Livestock
1924 6,592,537 802,228 728,826
1932 5,191,854 581,589 440,695

Table 2

Receipts Details of Railway Traffic
Year Passenger Merchandise Livestock
1924 £705,917 £733,300 £144,370
1932 £388,550 £401,765 £78,001

Table 3

Total Receipts and Expenditure
Year Total Receipts Total Expenditure Expenditure as a % of Receipts
1924 £2,232,973 £1,795,961 80%
1932 £1,195,942 £1,128,568 94%

Table 4

Index of Volume - 1924 equals 100%
Year Passengers Merchandise Livestock
1924 100 100 100
1932 79 72 60

Table 5

Index of Receipts - 1924 equals 100%
Year Passengers Merchandise Livestock
1924 100 100 100
1932 55 55 54

These figures indicate the general decline in the volume and receipts from all classes of traffic, and while this was generally not so great in the passenger department as in the goods, the former was becoming relatively much less profitable. For example the volume of passenger traffic had shrunk to 79% of the 1924 volume and receipts to 55% while goods volume had shrunk to 72% and receipts to 55%.

At the same time there was a marked increase in the ratio of expenditure to revenue. Part of this was due to the burden of past First World War conditions of service carried over into a period when road transport was starting to build up competition.

Table 6

Wages per week of principal
grades of workers GNR (I)
Worker 19131921 (Jan).

Table 7

Total Salaries and Wages
Paid GNR (I)
1913 £356,807
1920 £1,406,000

Railways had. to start competing with an irregular lorry service charging uneconomic and varying rates for inwards traffic, and returning with outwards loads at any figure obtainable, regardless of cost of working. Between rail and road undertaking an intensive and bitter traffic warfare was being waged.

Reduction in services

Under such conditions there was an apparent benefit to the public in lower charges but this could only be temporary until economic forces brought about a reduction in services. Excessively low charges brought about by intense competition could not continue indefinitely.

Railway and road services were however needed by the community. Railways had the great advantage of speed with safety and the ability to handle bulk traffic. Road transport had the advantage of flexibility.

The problems of transport in Northern Ireland were not resolved in the 1930s. An attempt was made by setting up the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board which amalgamated all road services, but the essential ingredient of coordinating road and rail transport in a single authority eluded the legislators.

The Great Northern Railway

Strangely enough it seemed to founder on the question of railway policy, and in particular that applied to the Great Northern Railway Company which served two States. Of its 562 miles of track 332 miles (59%) were in Northern Ireland. Its Head-quarters were in Dublin and its Engineering Works in Dundalk. Its lines crossed the Border no less than 15 times with 7 customs stations. Furthermore when the Southern State amalgamated its railways the Great Northern system was excluded.

It is ironic therefore that the eventual demise of the railway system in Northern Ireland was caused in part by the extent and size of one of the great railway companies of Ireland, which was thought to be an intractable problem when the amalgamation of the railways in the North was being considered. As a result, in due course of time only a remnant of the GRN (I) and the N.C.C. survive to this day under Northern Ireland Railways. All the other companies have either been closed or allowed to die.

(Acknowledgement of Report by Sir F J C Pole 1934).