Greenway threatens heritage steam railway plans

Posted by Chris Graham on 26th May 2023

We report on the latest plans to re-instate a narrow-gauge heritage steam railway through the picturesque Barnesmore Gap, in Ireland.

heritage steam railway

What could be on offer. CDR 2-6-4t number 2 Blanche in full cry, lifting its heavy mixed train through the Barnesmore Gap in May 1956. The ledge on which the train is running remains intact today. (Pic: Donegal Railway Heritage Centre)

Plans for a pedestrian, cycling and riding greenway, using much of the trackbed of the former County Donegal Railways mainline through the scenic Barnesmore Gap, between Ballybofey and Donegal Town, could block future plans to re-open part of the route as a heritage railway.

Public consultation on the proposal has elicited a large number of responses, including from Donegal Railway Heritage Centre, its members and supporters. The centre has been in talks with Donegal County Council about the possibility of including a narrow-gauge railway track with the greenway, much in the same way that Northumberland’s Aln Valley Railway has been able to do along its route between Alnwick and Alnmouth.

The line is well-defined, looking towards Donegal Town. (Pic: Hugh Dougherty)

The former South Donegal Railway Restoration Society pressed ahead in 1991 with a scheme to restore just over 10 miles of the railway, to link the site of the former Meenglas Halt with Barnesmore Halt, including the most scenic part of the line where it runs through the Gap on a ledge cut into the hillside. But the plan failed because of a proposed Ballybofey bypass scheme which would have used part of the old railway track route past Lough Mourne, while a geological issue at the foot of the Gap and the objections of a home-owner to a railway running near his property, sealed its fate.

Since then, the successor to the SDRRS, Donegal Railway Restoration CLG, operator of the heritage centre, has reaffirmed its aim of operating heritage CDR stock with several options, including the Barnesmore Gap route, being actively considered.

Niall McCaughan, Donegal Railway Heritage Centre manager, said: “We encouraged all our members, supporters and the general public to get involved in the consultation and there has been a good response. It’s important that the railway and its place in the Barnesmore Gap is recognised, and it may be possible to build the greenway in such a way that it doesn’t rule out a heritage line on the existing CDR trackbed.”

heritage steam railway

CDR 2-6-4t number 5 Drumboe on its return for display at Donegal Railway Heritage Centre in October 2021, after restoration at Whitehead. The line of the railway, on which Drumboe may steam, can be seen on the hillside above the locomotive. (Pic: Donegal Railway Heritage Centre)

Greenway champion, Coun. Barry Sweeny of Donegal County Council, said: “I believe that the greenway has great potential and I am very much aware of the railway heritage of the Barnesmore Gap. I congratulate the railway heritage group for its work. Its input is invaluable in taking this project forward.”

The three-foot gauge line through the Barnesmore Gap was built by the West Donegal Railway Company and opened between Stranorlar, where it connected with the 5ft 3in gauge Finn Valley Railway, and had a temporary terminus at Drumminin in 1882, before being extended to its original intended terminus at Donegal Town in 1889. Following the conversion of the FVR to narrow gauge in 1894, the railway through the Gap became the CDR’s mainline, and handled through trains from Derry and Strabane to Killybegs. It closed with the rest of the CDR on December 21st, 1959, and was lifted in 1960. 

An early view of the railway though the Gap from a postcard. (Pic: Donegal Railway Heritage Centre)

Since then the bulk of the trackbed has remained intact and distinct, while its re-use as a mainline railway has been mooted as part of rail lobby group, into the West’s popular and growing campaign to reconnect Donegal to the Irish national system. If the proposals do come to fruition, the greenway plans would have to be substantially altered, and if a narrow-gauge heritage line does succeed in running though the Gap, it would raise the intriguing possibility of mixed gauge track making its first appearance in Donegal.

This feature comes from a recent issue of Old Glory, and you can get a money-saving subscription to this magazine simply by clicking HERE


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