By 1880, there was over 2,000 miles of broad gauge (five foot three inches) in Ireland. Large areas on the west coast had no coverage at all. It is arguable that the railways had reached a commercially viable extent by 1880, which to some extent is reflected by the fact that many of the lines built by that stage, are those survived longest, many to date.
In the 1880s a new cheaper form of rail construction was sought in order to bring railways to more remote areas on the west coast. A number of different types of railways with a common three foot gauge were subsidised by ratepayers and later government grants. Despite the lack of interconnectability, the three foot “narrow” gauge railways were significantly cheaper to construct.
A number of early narrow gauge lines were built in County Antrim for hauling iron ore to Belfast and Larne for export to the North West of England. The Ballymena to Larne Railway was authorised in 1874 to build a 24 mile link between the towns. The Ballycastle Railway provided a link to Ballymoney.
In the period from 1870s forward, British government policy towards Ireland changed radically from the noninterventionist stance which had done a little to alleviate the Great Famine. This was due in part to the growing influence of the Irish Parliamentary Part and the desire to discourage violent nationalism. This policy played a role in the development of narrow gauge railways in remoter areas in Ireland.
The Congested Districts Board applied to Congested Districts Areas and the western seaboard. It build harbours about fisheries, promoted agriculture, laid roads and encouraged construction of railways. It dealt with the purchase of lands under the Land Purchase Acts and redistribution to tenant farmers.
The Tramways Act 1883 was designed to promote light rail in remoter parts of Ireland. If a railway scheme met the approval of the grand jury, it could guarantee interest on capital employed to build a line. It would specify the baronies which would benefit , which would bear the cost.
The Tramways Act greatly changed the economics of railway construction. It placed a considerable burden on ratepayers and led to the construction of railways that had no economic chance of success. The baronial guarantee was actually open-ended and could become a severe financial burden.
Light Railways Act
The Light Railways (Ireland) Act allowed the government to directly fund lines which the Lord Lieutenant deemed to be in the public interest. The Railways (Ireland) Act 1896 provided for Treasury grants in areas where this was deemed necessary. This legislation benefited North Donegal, in particular. The same broad legislation and provisions applied to the light railways as applied to standard gauge railways.
Light railways were constructed across the whole South Western and Westerns seaboard from Clonakilty to North Donegal. Narrow gauge railways were built in West Cork, West Kerry (the famous Tralee and Dingle Railway), the famous West Clare Railway from Ennis to Kilrush and Kilkee, the Cavan and Leitrim Railway, Dromod to Belturbet. The Clogher Valley Railway was one of the few three foot railways built in what became Northern Ireland under baronial guarantees.
Donegal Light Rail
The two largest Irish narrow gauge systems were built in Donegal. The Donegal Railway Company was formed from the merger of existing companies. The existing Finn Valley line from Stranorlar to Strabane was converted to three foot gauge. Branches were constructed from Donegal town to Killybegs and from Stranorlar to Glenties.
A narrow gauge was constructed linking Strabane to Derry in parallel to the broad gauge. The Donegal Railways were purchased by the U.K. Midland Railway. A joint committee was established Northern County to the Donegal railways joint committee which existed until the 1970s.
The system was extended by the Letterkenny & Burtonport Extension Railway and another extension was from Buncrana to Carndonagh. The most ambitious link was from Burtonport to Letterkenny; it included the famous Owencarrow viaduct 280 yards in length. This was scene of an accident in 1925 when a train was blown off the viaduct.
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