The Belfast-Larne Harbour service originally began from York Road station and was opened in l848 by the Belfast & Ballymena Railway. A branch was opened to Carrickfergus in l848 and from there to Larne in 1862, by the Carrickfergus & Larne Railway.
York Road was a large station, one of three mainline terminals in the city (Great Victoria Street served the North, South and West and Queen’s Quay the East and South), but was closed when all the lines to and from Belfast were brought together in l976. A small station was subsequently opened at Great Victoria Street.
The station and railway works were badly damaged in an air raid in l941 and the Midland Hotel, alongside the station, was destroyed. The hotel was re-built in the l960s but eventually closed.
The Belfast-Larne Harbour line takes just over one hour to complete, but it is one of the most spectacular routes in Northern Ireland, running through the city centre – on an elevated track – past Cave Hill and alongside the County Antrim side of Belfast Lough (the opposite side is County Down) before turning briefly inland to serve such villages and hamlets as Whiteabbey, Jordanstown, Greenisland, Trooperslane, Clipperstown, Carrickfergus, Whitehead, Larne Town and the bustling ferry terminals at Larne Harbour.
Much of its journey is along the shores of Belfast Lough and Larne Lough, with mountains and rolling countryside to the left. The trains use a double track until they reach Whitehead and from there to Larne Harbour it becomes a single track through Ballycarry, Magheramourne, Glynn and Larne Town.
Leaving the award-winning Central Station the train passes the redeveloped Laganside – through what was once Maysfield railway cattle stockyards – with its gleaming new office blocks, luxury apartments, hotels and, to the left, the magnificent Belfast Waterfront Hall (pic).
Coming up to the right the listed yellow cranes at Harland & Wolff – once the largest shipyard in the world – dominate the city skyline. And below them is the Odyssey, a large concert hall and home to the professional ice hockey club the Belfast Giants.
Look carefully to the right and you can see the SS Nomadic, the surviving link with the ill-fated Belfast-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 Titanic – and brought back to Belfast to be restored as the centrepiece of the growing Titanic Quarter.
The route crosses the River Lagan and branches to the left from the Belfast-Bangor line. It recrosses the Lagan and travels above the city – to the left is St Anne’s Cathedral, with its recently added needle spire making it one of the city’s tallest buildings, to the right the River Lagan opens into Belfast Lough – to the Yorkgate halt, a small red-brick station built in l975 to replace York Road.
Shortly after leaving Yorkgate, look for Midland House, a grey building to the left. This was once the Midland Hotel. What was York Road station is now the large Northern Ireland Railways Central Maintenance Depot yards.
On the left, shortly afterwards, is Seaview, home of Irish Premier League club Crusaders.
Cave Hill, a City Council-owned national park, rises on the left. The Hill is famous for Napoleon’s Nose (the outline of the Hill resembles a man’s profile), Belfast Castle (seen amid the trees) and Belfast Zoo. In the cliff-face can be seen two caves.
Cave Hill rises 360m to the cliff face of McArt’s Fort, named after the 16th Century chieftain Art O’Neill. The Castle is built in the Scottish Baronial style. Whiteabbey is a small station serving the nearby commuter village, though it was once a fully-manned and much busier stop on the line.