'There's a belief that whenever a train line is shut it can't be reopened, but if you can build a road you can build a rail track'

Every morning commuters from Co Down pile into early morning buses or queue up patiently in rush hour traffic as they navigate the routes into Belfast from Dundonald, Comber and Newtownards. But if senior figures at Northern Ireland Railways had had their way back in the mid-1990s those commuters would now be watching the countryside flit by and listening to the rattle of the rails on a reopened Belfast and County Down Railway line, according to railway enthusiast Robert Gardiner, who has uncovered plans to reinstate the line. Earlier this year Robert, who chairs the Downpatrick & County Down Railway, a heritage railway set up on the former Downpatrick BCDR terminus, paid tribute to the old lines that fell silent 70 years ago on January 15, 1950, axed by ministers at Stormont who believed railways had become as obsolete as the stagecoach.

Railway stations on what had been a key transport corridor south of Comber were mothballed and passengers could no longer take a train to Castlewellan or Newcastle, stopping at Ballygowan, Saintfield, Ballynahinch junction, Crossgar, or Dundrum, or branching off after Downpatrick for Ardglass.

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Archive picture of Dundonald railway station in the Fifties

Archive picture of Dundonald railway station in the Fifties

Meanwhile, on April 22 of the same year the remaining services from Belfast to Comber with stops at Bloomfield, Neill's Hill, Knock, Dundonald and on to Donaghadee also came to a halt. In 1948 Stormont had decided to nationalise the network and amalgamate the LMS and BCDR with bus operator the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board to form the Ulster Transport Authority, a predecessor to Translink. The recommendation, accepted by Stormont, was that the entire Belfast and Co Down railway main line from Belfast to Newcastle, including the branches to Donaghadee, Ballynahinch and Ardglass, should be closed and the only route saved was the Belfast to Bangor connection, which continues operating successfully to this day.

But Robert says that even as it happened, the closure of the Comber line was seen as a mistake, and NIR chiefs tried to rectify that mistake as recently as the 1990s. "Knock was starting to develop into suburban territory, as well as Neill's Hill and Sandown, and Ballybeen was being planned as a housing estate," he explains. "The population centre that would have fed into that line was growing and it potentially had a new customer base that wouldn't have been there before the closure, but it would have made the line more viable."

Robert says more than enough new diesel trains had already been ordered to operate both the Bangor and Newtownards lines and it's thought that the Transport Tribunal had expected Stormont to spare the Comber line as a compromise option. "As late as 1953 before the tracks were lifted they were calling on the minister responsible to reverse the decision and trial these new diesel trains on this section of track, a call that fell on deaf ears," he says. "In railway circles the closure of the Comber line was always described as a huge mistake.

It was the equivalent to closing the Harcourt Street line in the South, which was eventually reopened as part of the Luas system, so that closure was rectified. But the loss of the Comber line was the most obvious mistake from the 1950s and 1960s."

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'There's a belief that whenever a train line is shut it can't be reopened, but if you can build a road you can build a rail track'

Dundonald station, now the Comber Greenway

Dundonald station, now the Comber Greenway

But over the following decades rail began to enjoy a renaissance, in part due to its status as a public good that could ease the environmental pressure created by individual cars on the roads network. By the 1990s Northern Ireland Railways had become proactive in reversing many of the earlier declines in the rail network, Robert says.

For example, Great Victoria Street Station and the old Queen's Quay had been mothballed with a view that everything could be centralised in the new Central Station (now Lanyon Place), and urban development could be encouraged to move to that area. "However, the city centre stubbornly remained beside the City Hall and the head of NIR successfully lobbied to have Great Victoria Street Station reopened. Now they have built the Transport Hub there, giving Belfast back a proper terminus," Robert says.

"NIR had lobbied to get Great Victoria Street reopened and argued to have the Bleach Green Line opened as well as the cross-harbour link between Central Station and York Street. "You had these three big investments in the rail network and I think the feeling was that the next obvious stage was to rectify the mistake that had been made on the Comber line." Robert says that as a 16-year-old in the 1990s he remembers hearing rumours that NIR was poised to reopen the old Comber line.

"I was doing work experience at a chemist in Dundonald and a staff member said: 'I see they're reopening the Comber railway'. I was thrilled and I kept looking to see if work had started but it never did," he says. "It was only when I got more involved in this area that I got the chance to ask some of the people that had long retired whether it was true and they said: 'Yes, it was true'."

Only recently Robert managed to firm up the rumours when he acquired the original feasibility study from a former NIR employee. "It's been known about in railway circles probably since the time, but not very well beyond those circles," he says. "It was well-known that the older management before Translink were serious about reopening the Comber line.

That proposal was for heavy rail - ie standard trains - but they had also looked at light rail as well like the Luas, or a predecessor to the Glider.

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'There's a belief that whenever a train line is shut it can't be reopened, but if you can build a road you can build a rail track'

Women waiting for a train at Saintfield station

Women waiting for a train at Saintfield station

"There were even rumours that there was a model of it in Central Station showing where the signals would be, it was that detailed. Then it just seemed to go nowhere." Intriguingly, the report proposes a three-year project, building eight miles of double track and four miles of single track railway, serving the densely populated areas of east Belfast, Dundonald, Ards and Comber.

"The rail line will be convenient to many schools in the area, as well as Stormont Buildings, Dundonald Ice Bowl And the Ulster Hospital," it says. The plan offered fast journey times, bringing commuters from Newtownards to Central Station within 19 minutes or Comber to Great Victoria Street in 20 minutes, and proposed building up to eight new stations at locations such as Connswater, Orangefield, Knock, Tullycarnet, Dundonald, Ballybeen, Comber and Newtownards. "A substantial increase in NIR passenger journeys is anticipated.

Traffic congestion will be reduced and greater use of public transport encouraged," the report says. "Surprisingly and fortunately", despite the development that had taken place in the area by the 1990s, more than 85% of the former track-bed from Ballymacarrett Junction to the south side of Newtownards still hadn't been redeveloped, the report adds. The report suggested an initial train frequency of up to five trains per hour at peak, offering a capacity of 1,500 passengers per hour, but longer train formations could increase this capacity to at least 3,000 passengers per hour.

The total capital cost was estimated at GBP75m at 1993 prices, including rolling stock costs of GBP20m. Rail planners proposed a continuous viaduct from Dee Street across Holywood Arches to the other side of Beersbridge Road, track lowering at the former Neill's Hill level crossing at Sandown to allow a road over-bridge and the construction of a reinforced cut-and-cover tunnel alongside police headquarters at Brooklyn for security reasons. It also proposed a comprehensive road scheme at Dundonald's Comber Road, possibly including a roundabout at the junction with Old Dundonald Road, and a new station at Killyleagh Road in Comber.

The line would end next to the roundabout beside Ards Shopping Centre, although there was an alternative plan to build a new stretch adjacent to the Comber-Newtownards Road with a station south of Conway Square. If the plans had been progressed, it could have made the commute from Comber, Dundonald and Newtownards much easier, Robert says. "Anecdotally, there are a lot of people who drive from Newtownards to Bangor to get the train into Belfast.

"If Newtownards and Comber were served by train you wouldn't have that extra car use. "The Comber to Dundonald road is dreadful. You could have had a much more frequent service, much faster than the Glider service, which doesn't go to Newtownards and Comber, and more communities would be connected currently than the Glider offers.

"And rail travel does attract a different demographic than bus travel. People who wouldn't get out of their cars to travel by bus will get out of their cars to travel by train. "If it's the case that you did attract a different demographic, it would serve a lot more commuter areas."

These days, the Comber Greenway runs along a large part of the former route.

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'There's a belief that whenever a train line is shut it can't be reopened, but if you can build a road you can build a rail track'

The last steam-hauled passenger train on the Belfast Central line, linking the Belfast-Bangor track to Portadown

The last steam-hauled passenger train on the Belfast Central line, linking the Belfast-Bangor track to Portadown

But Robert points out that one of the arguments originally put forward for developing greenways in Northern Ireland was that they would protect rail routes from adverse development so that they could be reinstated at a future date. "There's a perception that once a rail line closes it cannot be reopened and it's not the case," he says. "If you can build the A5 or A6 roads, you can build the railways."

For example, the Borders railway in Scotland, reinstated only a few years ago, has surpassed all expectations in terms of passenger numbers. But he admits: "There doesn't seem to be a lobby in Comber and Newtownards for reinstating rail, unlike in Armagh where there's a strong lobby group campaigning for the rail line to come back." Robert admits he can't see the Comber line being reinstated now.

"I think the bid in the 1990s was probably the best chance we would have had of seeing trains coming back to Comber and Newtownards," he says. "From the politicians in the area or the local community, I don't see anything other than nostalgia. There's no group actively campaigning for the government to listen.

It falls into the 'Wouldn't it be nice' category." Robert says he's more optimistic about the potential to reinstate rail lines in Armagh and Dungannon, both mooted in the Railway Investment Prioritisation Strategy published by former Transport Minister Danny Kennedy in 2014 and backed by strong lobby groups. "It took a lost feasibility study from NIR to see how close we came to getting the Comber Line back, but it's bittersweet," he says.

"It's nice to see it was being seriously considered, but the fact that we didn't get it is... what could have been." But he says the route was once also tipped to be part of an M7 motorway between Belfast and Dundonald and so far it has been protected from adverse development by the greenway. "Maybe, with the climate crisis and if the trains are electrified, it might change minds.

Maybe if we do see somewhere like the Armagh line being reopened, that will convince people it's possible to reopen the line," Robert says.

"It will take people to see that this isn't fairy tale stuff - this can be done."

Belfast Telegraph

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