Today the only line still operating over what was once the extensive route system of the Belfast and County Down Railway is that from Belfast Central to Bangor.
The BCDR was founded in 1846 and the first stretch of a system that was eventually to cover some 80 miles throughout County Down – to Newcastle (opened in 1869), Ballynahinch (1858), Downpatrick, Ardglass (from Downpatrick in 1892), Castlewellan (from Newcastle in 1906), Comber – was opened to Holywood in 1848.
In 1865 the Holywood and Bangor Railway extended the line along the shore of Belfast Lough into Bangor. In the 1950s the other routes were closed.
Today, though, the Belfast-Bangor line is one of the most successful in the Northern Ireland Railways system, serving what is commonly known as the Gold Coast, a wealthy stretch of luxury homes and fashionable small towns, hamlets and communities, many of which can be seen along the loughside on the left.
Several small stations on the line no longer exist – Ballymacarrett Junction, Kinnegar and Craigavad – though what remains can still be seen as the train rolls past. Originally all the lines ran from Queen’s Quay Station, now part of the development along the River Lagan and where the Odyssey now stands. Queen’s Quay was one of three terminals in Belfast, the others being York Road (serving Londonderry and Larne Harbour) and Great Victoria Street (also serving Londonderry, Mid-Ulster, Fermanagh, Donegal and Dublin), but in 1976 all the lines were brought under one roof with the building of Belfast Central Station.
Central Station provides an excellent hub for all the railway lines: you can travel from Bangor through to Newry, Londonderry and Larne Harbour. A small station was rebuilt at Great Victoria Street as part of the Translink (the holding company for NIR) integrated train/bus transport services around Northern Ireland and trains from Great Victoria Street run through Central Station.
The first station out of Belfast Central on this 30-minute journey is Bridge End. In 1977 it replaced Ballymacarratt Junction, the platform of which can still be seen. Bridge End is convenient for the Odyssey, the Laganside concert hall, multi-screen cinema, W5 and arena for the professional ice hockey Belfast Giants.
From Bridge End to Sydenham what was once the world’s largest shipyard of Harland and Wolff can be seen on the left, towered over by the now-listed giant yellow cranes (Samson and Goliath). The area is currently being massively redeveloped as the Titanic Quarter, named after the ill-fated luxury liner that was built by Harland and Wolff.
On the left just out of Bridge End is Victoria Park and if you look closely you can see a small boatyard, where concrete boats are built. On the right just beyond Bridge End is the Oval, home of Irish Premier League club Glentoran. Formed in 1882, the Glens – nickname: the Cock ‘n’ Hens – are one of the most famous soccer clubs in Ireland and the first British club ever to win a major European trophy. In 1914 they travelled to Austria, played against teams from Burnley, Celtic, Hertha and an Austrian Select and won the Vienna Cup.
Sydenham serves the East Belfast suburb of the same name and is the nearest station to the George Best Belfast City Airport, which it connects by a regular shuttle bus service (though airline passengers are much better using the regular shuttle bus service). The train runs past the airport, seen on the left. Vague plans exist for a station dedicated to the airport but nothing has yet come of them.
Named after the famous Manchester United and Northern Ireland soccer star, the airport was opened in 1983 and serves all of the major British Isles cities. It was the site originally of the flying-boat services and was established by the aircraft manufacturers Short Brothers. It was the city’s main airport in 1938-39 and was then taken over during the war as a Royal Air Force station.
As the train passes the airport there opens up, on the left, the Belfast Harbour Wetlands Park, now one of the most important bird and wildlife reserves in Northern Ireland. It is surprising to find such a rich source of wildlife in such a heavily industrialised area, but here you can find some 200 different bird species: ducks, gulls, raptors and waders.