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Video: ‘The train now departing Dungannon station...’

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By Anthony Quinn

The idea of a platform echoing to that announcement is a welcome train of thought for many local people, who are hopeful for the first time in decades that a new railway age might be about to dawn for Tyrone.

Last week, Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy proposed a series of feasibility studies which could eventually mean major track extensions to Dungannon and Armagh.

The proposals have been enthusiastically welcomed by hard-pressed commuters and devoted train enthusiasts, who have spent years campaigning for the return of rail to the towns.

It is difficult to appreciate the transforming effect of Tyrone’s first railway age which lasted from 1858 to 1965.

No matter how charmingly quaint the last trains leaving the old Dungannon station seem compared to today’s technology they were marvels of innovation in their era.

And each train had its own story to tell, be it ferrying packed passengers to market days, on local trips, Sunday School excursions, or to the ports in Derry and Belfast on the so-called emigration trains, or bringing in visitors, and even the most basic goods and local produce.

Throughout a chain of Tyrone villages and towns, Annaghmore, Vernersbridge, Trew and Moy, Dungannon, Donaghmore, Pomeroy, Carrickmore, Sixmilecross, Beragh and Omagh, working life and leisure were bound by the precise regularity of a train timetable for more than a century.

Mainline express trains, local services, evening and night goods trains shunted through these intermediate stations on what was the most important railway route in Ulster.

However, the line which had seemed among the most permanent of Irish railway routes and survived social, economic and political upheaval, was brought to a premature end by government in 1965, and piece by piece the railway route, known to generations of train users and operatives as the Derry Road, fell to the wayside.

Clonmore man Jim Donaghy, a member of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland, remembers watching the steam trains from his classroom window.

“When I was growing up the trains were absolutely key to community life. Our teachers travelled to school by train, and every day all the newspapers in the townland came by train from Portadown.

“I remember travelling by train as a student to QUB in Belfast. We had two choices of train on a Sunday evening - the second one, which came from Derry, was absolutely packed with students.

“Hundreds of cattle would also have been shipped on wagons to England on Moy Fair Day, which was the first Friday of every month.

“Probably the most famous visitor to Moy and Trewe station was US General Patton, who visited the troops stationed at the Argory on the eve of the D-Day landings.”

History

The line was originally built in two sections by the highly-successful Ulster Railway Company: Portadown to Dungannon, opened in 1858, and Dungannon to Omagh, opened in 1861.

Both sections presented formidable engineering difficulties for the engineers and the 800 construction navvies, notably the crossing of the River Blackwater at Vernersbridge with five spans each fifty-seven feet wide; the boring of Dungannon tunnel at a cost of £20,000 to appease Lord Northland, who refused to allow “the iron monster belching smoke” to be seen in his grounds and, not least, the rock cutting on the approach to the line’s summit at 571 feet above sea level in the Sperrin foothills close to Carrickmore.

As the navvies toiled on cuttings and embankments, stone masons were hard at work on the bridges which were beautifully constructed of dressed stone, mainly from Carland quarry outside Dungannon.

Many of these bridges still stand as monuments to the skills of the engineers and craftsmen. Most of the original railway buildings are also reasonably intact, most notably at Trew and Moy where the Hughes family have effected a striking and sensitive restoration project.

Two of the intermediate stations, at Vernersbridge and Sixmilecross, were built at the behest of the landlord, William Verner of Churchill, and clearly obvious at Vernersbridge is evidence how the architectural style deviates considerably from the other station buildings on the line.

In 1962 the Benson Report, compiled at the request of the Stormont Government, recommended the closure of the Portadown – Derry line and the U.T.A did not hesitate to implement the recommendation. Local anger was increased by the announcement that the east-coast line to Derry would remain open.

In February 1965 the final closure took effect. The lifting of the track and sale of the land in the winter of 1966/1967 completed the final chapter in the history of railways locally.

However, despite the ravages of the intervening half century much evidence of a once-great enterprise still remains in the form of embankments, cuttings, bridges and station buildings.

 

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