Gauge: 3ft (915mm)
Stretching for many miles through a remote and mountainous part of Ireland this extensive narrow-gauge railway had a remarkable history of growth and expansion. It provided direct connections to the city quayside of Derry whilst reaching into the most inhospitable glens and mountain passes. Throughout its existence it provided vital transport to the communities it served. It also provided jobs for hundreds of people.
The origins of the County Donegal Railway lay in the Finn Valley Railway opened in September 1863 between Strabane and Stranorlar to the Irish standard gauge of 5’3″. From the mid-1870s representations were made for the extension of the railway westwards. In July 1879 an Act was passed empowering the West Donegal Railway Company to construct a line, eighteen miles in length from Stranorlar, through the Barnesmore Gap to Donegal town. This was to be built to Ireland’s second “standard gauge” of 3ft 0in. The WDR chairman, Lord Lifford, and many of the officials were also closely involved with the FVR.
Progress on the WDR was hindered by lack of money and the line was prematurely terminated four miles from Donegal. Nevertheless the line opened to traffic on the 25th April 1882, passengers being brought into Donegal by horse drawn carriage. Eventually finance was raised to bring the line into Donegal in 1889. To work the line, three 2-4-0 tank engines were purchased from Sharp, Stewart & Co. Transhipment of all passengers and freight to the broad gauge was, of course, necessary at Stranorlar.
The Light Railways (Ireland) Act of 1889 aided development of the railway system in Ireland by offering state aid to new light railway companies, in return for a commitment to operate the lines. Profits would be divided between the company and the state. Under the terms of this Act the West Donegal Light Railway opened in 1893 running for nineteen miles between Donegal and the port of Killybegs. The following year the Finn Valley Railway opened a twenty-four mile stretch of line alongside the Finn and Shallogan rivers between Stranorlar and Glenties. Both were 3ft 0in gauge.
By this time the FVR and WDR had merged under Parliamentary sanction in 1892 as the Donegal Railway Company. The opening of these new lines gave the Donegal Railway Company 75½ miles of track. The broad gauge FVR section was re-gauged to 3ft 0in in July 1894. Problems of transhipment at Stranorlar were simply transferred to Strabane. The advantages of securing independent access to the city and quays of Derry were recognised. Despite opposition from the Great Northern Railway, Parliamentary approval was obtained for the Donegal Railway’s own line from Strabane to Derry, opened in May 1900. At the same time, approval was granted for a branch line to Ballyshannon and this opened in 1905.
This growth began to take its toll on the company’s finances, and led to the purchase of the system in 1906 by an association of the Great Northern Railway and the (English) Midland Railway. Thereafter the DR became known as the County Donegal Railways Joint Committee (CDRJC). Under the new arrangement, all lines were operated by the CDRJC, except for the Strabane to Derry section which became the sole property of the Midland.
The final extension, a branch line from Strabane to Letterkenny, was opened in January 1909. A separate company was formed to construct this line, though both the GNR and the NCC had financial involvement. Trains were operated by the CDRJC, bringing the total mileage worked to 124½ miles.
With partition in 1921 six of the nine counties of Ulster were formed into the new Northern Ireland while the remaining three, Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal, became part of the new Irish Free State. This caused considerable inconvenience to the CDR as trains now had to negotiate customs inspections at Strabane (Northern Ireland) and Castlefinn or Lifford (Free State) which often led to long delays and timetable disruption.
Meanwhile a number of economy measures had been introduced, including the pioneering development of railcars – both petrol and diesel, which enabled the system to survive longer than many of its contemporaries. Even so after the Second World War, traffic on the system began to decline as a consequence of the competition from road transport. The Glenties branch closed to regular passenger and goods traffic on the 13th December 1947 and eventually to all traffic in March 1952.
Since 1948 the Derry section had come under the control of the Ulster Transport Authority. As losses mounted, the UTA applied for closure. By now, much of the permanent way was in need of repair and capital for replacement was not available. Formal application for complete closure of the system was made in May 1959 and all services ceased on 31st December 1959.
1 Alice Sharp, Stewart No. 3023 of 1881; 2-4-0 tank. Scrapped 1926
2 Blanche Sharp, Stewart No. 3021 of 1881; 2-4-0 tank. Scrapped 1909
3 Lydia Sharp, Stewart No. 3022 of 1881; 2-4-0 tank. Scrapped 1910
4 Meenglas Neilson & Co. No. 4573 of 1893; 4-6-0 tank. Scrapped 1935
5 Drumboe Neilson & Co. No. 4574 of 1893; 4-6-0 tank. Scrapped 1931
6 Inver Neilson & Co. No. 4575 of 1893; 4-6-0 tank. Scrapped 1931
7 Finn Neilson & Co. No. 4576 of 1893; 4-6-0 tank. Scrapped 1931
8 Foyle Neilson & Co. No. 4577 of 1893; 4-6-0 tank. Scrapped 1931
9 Colombkille Neilson & Co. No. 4578 of 1893; 4-6-0 tank. Scrapped 1937
10 Sir James Neilson, Reid & Co. 6103 of 1902; 4-4-4 tank. Scrapped 1933
11 Hercules Neilson, Reid & Co. No. 6104 of 1902; 4-4-4 tank. Scrapped 1933
12 (9) Eske Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. No. 697 of 1904; 4-6-4 tank. Scrapped 1954
13 (10) Owenea Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. No. 698 of 1904; 4-6-4 tank. Scrapped 1952
14 (11) Erne Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. No. 694 of 1904; 4-6-4 tank. Survived till closure
15 (12) Mourne Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. No. 700 of 1904; 4-6-4 tank. Scrapped 1952
16 Donegal Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. No. 828 of 1907; 2-6-4 tank. From 1937 4 Meenglas.
17 Glenties Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. No. 829 of 1907; 2-6-4 tank. From 1937 5 Drumboe.
18 Killybegs Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. No. 830 of 1907; 2-6-4 tank. From 1937 6
19 Letterkenny Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. No. 831 of 1908; 2-6-4 tank. From 1937 7 Finn
19 Raphoe Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. No. 832 of 1908; 2-6-4 tank. From 1937 8 Foyle.
21 Ballyshannon Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. No. 958 of 1912; 2-6-4 tank. From 1928 1 Alice
3A Strabane Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. No. 957 of 1912; 2-6-4 tank. From 1928 3 Lydia
2A Stranorlar Nasmyth, Wilson & Co. No. 956 of 1912; 2-6-4 tank. From 1928 2 Blanche
1 Petrol inspection car Alldays & Onions of 1906. Survives
2 Ford Petrol Railcar ex Derwent Valley Railway acquired 1926. Withdrawn 1934
3 Ford Petrol Railcar ex Derwent Valley Railway acquired 1926. Withdrawn 1934
2 Petrol Railcar ex C&VBT 193
3 Drewry Petrol Railcar ex Dublin & Blessington 1934. Converted to trailer 1944. Survives
4 Ford Petrol Railcar ex GNR 1928
6 Reo Petrol Railcar 1930. Rebuilt as trailer 1945
7 Diesel Railcar 1930. Scrapped 1949
8 Diesel Railcar 1931. Scrapped 1949
9 Reo Petrol Railcar 1933. Scrapped 1949
10 Reo Petrol Railcar 1933. Destroyed by fire 1939.
12 Diesel Railcar Walkers of Wigan of 1934
14 Diesel Railcar Walkers of Wigan of 1935
15 Diesel Railcar Walkers of Wigan of 1935
16 Diesel Railcar Walkers of Wigan of 1936
17 Diesel Railcar Walkers of Wigan of 1938. Destroyed in accident 1949
18 Diesel Railcar Walkers of Wigan of 1940
10 Diesel Railcar Walkers of Wigan of 1932 Ex Clogher Valley 1942
11 Phoenix Steam tractor by Atkinson Walker Waggons of 1928. Converted to diesel. Ex Clogher Valley 1942
19 Diesel Railcar Walkers of Wigan of 1950. Sold to Isle of Man Railway 1 March 1961. Survives.
20 Diesel Railcar Walkers of Wigan of 1951. Sold to Isle of Man Railway 1 March 1961. Survives.