Could trains run through Barnesmore Gap again?

The narrow gauge County Donegal Railway and the neighbouring Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway are local historical icons, beloved of not only local but world-wide nostalgic reminiscence.

The narrow gauge County Donegal Railway and the neighbouring Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway are local historical icons, beloved of not only local but world-wide nostalgic reminiscence.

The interest and appeal is enough to support the running of a museum in Donegal Town, a short stretch of line deep in the Gaeltacht at Fintown and the seasonal opening of a museum in Derry. These operations are clearly valuable in bringing local visitors. Specific extra efforts have been made over the last seven years to run festivals and Model Railway exhibitions based at the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre, and, more recently at Kee’s Hotel, Stranorlar.

These have been successful in bringing a railway heritage message to further people, both local and tourists from near and far. The concept of the Trail of the Rail was also launched as a simple motoring tour of the railway sites of interest in the county, and now has some seven years of promotion behind it. Free leaflets on the Trail of the Rail are available from the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre.

With this level of basic sentimental local appeal and international tourist interest, the temptation is to look at further options for reinstatement of the railway in a suitable location for maximum benefit in bringing visitor interest and much needed business to the area. An initial proposal in the 1990s for Barnesmore Gap created huge interest but the proposing team were unable to carry it through. Fortunately the energy and enthusiasm was harnessed and resulted in the construction of the Fintown Railway mainly funded through Údarás na Gaeltachta.

A new project was then proposed to provide a Park-and-Ride system on the old railway trackbed out from Donegal Town Station in Tyrconnell Street to the site of the new council offices at Drumlonagher, where a variety of new developments were then planned. A feasibility study was produced and planning permission was successfully obtained. All local relevant planning discussions and meetings were attended. The idea was to bring visitors to and from Drumlonagher and the old railway station, the thinking being that many of the tour coaches could stop at the proposed car-parking at Drumlonagher. Visitors could enjoy the originally proposed facilities there, and then be able to come into town on the railway in a range of restored original or look-alike rebuilt railway vehicles, enabling them to enjoy the town’s facilities without the normally associated traffic jams.

By 2006, however, Donegal Town was suffering from developer wars with all the proposals and subsequent planning objections local people know about. When the local Mayor suggested the railway simply opted to renew its outline permission for the re-opening of the line to Drumlonagher and await the developer arguments settling down, there was new found opposition to the railway that had previously not been there, despite after all the planning discussions and meeting attendance. In the end the planning application had to be withdrawn – a huge waste of time and opportunity, and the end of the Celtic Tiger finished the thing off.

The loss of that opportunity does not do away with the argument that a re-instated part of the County Donegal Railway in a suitable location could bring thousands more visitors to Donegal Town. Barnesmore Gap remains the adjudged best location not only for access, but because it is adjacent to the main artery through the county. The trackbed when inspected was found to be still in reasonable condition. By Summer 2007 a further outline proposal had been worked up for a reinstated line in Barnesmore Gap. This was subsequently outlined to Fáilte Ireland and the suggestion was made that an application should be made to their Innovation Fund to sponsor a full feasibility study.

The initial estimate was that a further 40,000 visitors per year are possible to a line running from near Biddy’s O’ Barnes up to Derg Bridge and if possible extended alongside Lough Mourne, proposals on raising its level permitting. The latter would allow visitors to take the train up to Lough Mourne and walk back around it to visit the Bog Reclamation site, thus linking the two attractions. Unfortunately the application made to Fáilte Ireland seemed to slip into some unknown ether in the depths and, after many enquiries as to what had happened, it surfaced too late for the fund. This is sadly all too typical of the great sentiment about the old railways failing to be linked to positive and motivated practical action.

County Donegal Railway Restoration Ltd has also devoted considerable resources and hard-won grant aid into restoration of key items of rolling stock. Steam locomotive Drumboe is now more than 60% restored and was brought back to Donegal Town for display during a festival in May 2007. At the same time the restored railcar trailer No 5 body was brought for display and use on site at the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre. A year later the restored body of red goods van No 12 and fully restored grey goods van No 84 were brought to the Centre for display, to add to the other exhibits which include restored Coach 28.

Work has also started on restoration of Railcar Trailer 15 for use as a 40-seater presentation room which hopefully can be financed under DLDC this year. Much of the heavy engineering of restoration to date has been done in co-operation with the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland (RPSI).

At present they are also storing the Company’s 3-foot gauge operational Ruston diesel locomotive which is to be fitted with special braking gear to be able to haul passenger trains.

December 31, 2009 was the actual fiftieth anniversary of closure of the County Donegal railway. The opportunity was taken not just to celebrate this but to demonstrate that a stretch of the old railway line could be re-opened local to Donegal Town. Some 100 metres of track was re-laid by an RPSI team in early December 2009 at Mullanbuoys Crossing Cottage on the line to Killybegs where the cottage and small railway platform have been lovingly restored by owner, Mervyn Johnston. The company’s restored 3-foot gauge 4-seater permanent way trolley was brought to the site on December 31. After a ceremonial opening by the Donegal Town Mayor, trains ran for two hours from 1pm alongside the platform at Mullanbuoys for the first time for 50 years, the trolley performing perfectly.

Together with the activities of the Fintown Railway this provided the evidence that within the county there is the wherewithal and skills to restore railway buildings, relay track, and run restored railway vehicles, and well as care for a full size museum of railway artefacts – itself a job creation scheme. The implication is that a reinstated tourist line in Barnesmore Gap to generate visitor interest and local business and employment is perfectly possible; it simply needs local support and funding, the latter being arguably justifiable to the greatest extent under the tourism heading. The current staffing at the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre have of necessity had to concentrate on earning sufficient income for the Centre to survive during the recession. So to allocate resource to a Barnesmore Project, County Donegal Railway Restoration Ltd is looking for one or more new directors who can immerse themselves in the promotional and administrative work towards recreating a line in Barnesmore Gap, using the resources at the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre to assist.

Anyone who feels they have the right skills and interests is invited to contact the Centre on (074) 9722655 or via e-mail on