Most of Ireland's railways were built piece-by-piece, NI's being a typical example of various small companies running lines between two points: Belfast to Ballymena, Londonderry to Coleraine… and nothing in between. And there were almost as many small companies as there were sleepers on the lines: the Belfast and Ballymena Railway, the Northern Counties Railway, the Midland Railway, the Irish North Western Railway, the Great Northern Railway, Northern Railway of Ireland, the Ulster Railway, the London Midland and Scottish, the Dublin and Belfast Junction Railway.
Clearly what was needed was a joined-up system, which the companies turned their attention to in the 1800s. On what is now the Belfast-Londonderry route the first tracks were laid from Belfast to Ballymena in April, l848. The Londonderry to Coleraine Railway ran to Limavady in l852 and to Coleraine the following year. The Ballymena, Ballymoney, Coleraine and Portrush Junction Railway opened to Portrush in l855.
One of many branch-lines - Randalstown to Cookstown - opened in l856. And other lines ran to Portrush and Draperstown, Dungiven and Cushendall. In l860 a bridge over the River Bann at Coleraine finally brought all the lines together and opened the Belfast-Londonderry route. Elsewhere, services to Londonderry were operated through Omagh-Portadown and Lisburn-Antrim, but you’ve probably got a headache trying to keep up.
Starting from Belfast, the journey to Londonderry is the longest single train trip in Northern Ireland at just over two hours. But if you need proof that size isn’t everything this is it.
Interestingly, it takes longer now than it did in the days of the steam trains! And in the days of steam there was a restaurant service on board. As ‘long haul’ travel goes it may not seem impressive but it is, arguably, the most spectacular route in all of Ireland.
So scenic is it, in fact, that it has been featured in the popular BBC television series, Great Railway Journeys of the World, in which Michael Palin waxed lyrical: “A train journey to the North Coast will be an unforgettable experience. Whether you live in Northern Ireland or are visiting, take the opportunity to visit and enjoy the beautiful scenery."
The award-winning Central Station is now the hub of the Northern Ireland Railways system, offering passengers and tourists frequent through services linking Bangor, Portadown, Newry, Larne Harbour and Londonderry. And all with a fleet of shiny new trains serving many rebuilt or refurbished stations and halts.
Leaving Central, the train passes the redeveloped Laganside, through what was once Maysfield railway cattle stockyards, and crosses the River Lagan twice. The Laganside development has been one of the gems of the city, with its gleaming new office blocks, luxury apartments, hotels and, to the left, the magnificent Waterfront Hall.
Shortly after the first crossing, the line branches to the left from the Belfast-Bangor route and travels above the city on an elevated track. To the right the listed yellow cranes – Samson and Goliath – at Harland & Wolff, once the world’s largest shipyard - dominate the skyline. And below them can be seen the Odyssey, a large leisure and concert hall and home to the Belfast Giants professional ice hockey team.
The Odyssey occupies the site of the former Queen’s Quay station that acted as the starting point for the many lines serving County Down. At one time Belfast had three large terminals: York Road served Larne Harbour and Londonderry and Great Victoria Street – now replaced by a much smaller station – served Enniskillen and the West, Mid-Ulster, Londonderry and Dublin.
All the lines were routed through to Central in l976 though there remains a strong link with the railway at York Road, now Northern Ireland Railways Central Maintenance Yard. Look carefully to the right as the train makes its second river crossing and you can see the SS Nomadic tied alongside the Odyssey, a surviving link with the ill-fated H&W-built Titanic. The Nomadic was found in an almost derelict state in a French shipyard - it was to be used to ferry First and Second Class passengers out to the luxury liner - and brought back to Belfast to be restored as the centrepiece of the growing Titanic Quarter.
To the left, just before St Anne’s Cathedral, with its recently added needle spire making it one of the city’s tallest buildings, can be seen Belfast’s famous answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa: the Albert Clock. Like most of Belfast’s buildings the 113ft tall clock was built on wooden piles on marshy, boggy land and now leans four feet off the vertical. It was designed by William J. Barre, built between l865-l870 and named after Queen Victoria’s Consort, Prince Albert.
Just along from the Cathedral can be seen the magnificent architectural gem of Custom House on the left. Designed by Samuel Ferris Lynn in the Italian Renaissance style and completed in l859, it was famous as the gathering place for public debate and fiery orators. The Victorian writer Anthony Trollope was employed there. The Square in front of the building is used as one of the city’s foremost open-air entertainment venues.
Further along, to the right, is another city gem. Belfast Harbour Commissioners Office, the graystone building with the square clock-tower, houses another treasure associated with the Titanic: the captain’s table and chairs made for the ship but delivered too late to be installed for its maiden voyage. The graystone church in front is Sinclair Seaman’s Presbyterian, dedicated to the world’s seafarers. Inside it has many nautical artefacts.
To the right the Lagan opens into Belfast Harbour and Lough before the line reaches the Yorkgate halt, a small red-brick station built to replace York Road in the late l990s.