The Belfast & Co Down Railway

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This is the story of one of the smallest railways in Ireland, whose route mileage was eclipsed even by some of the narrow gauge lines. Yet this railway, the Belfast and County Down, in its heyday carried the heaviest passenger traffic in Ireland and paid, by our standards, handsome dividends to its stockholders during a century of independence, before it fell on evil days and was absorbed into a State organization as an apparent act of mercy. It was a fascinating 100 years, beginning with false hopes of being part of a chain of communication between Scotland and Ireland, bolstered by Government incitement that came to nothing and was followed by decades of struggle for survival. Its best years began towards the end of the nineteenth century, the golden years for railway prosperity that ended in 1914, to be followed by the slow decline before the brief renaissance in the Second War when railways re-emphasised their usefulness - something that was quickly forgotten. Thus, all but 12 miles of the 'County Down' perished, but affection for it has persisted in a surprising manner after sixty years, even though we who remember it and its foibles become fewer in number. The narrative reaches into some strange corners both of railway management and engineering. Research has brought some odd things to light. To begin with, research itself has been possible by the action of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in safeguarding the BCDR Board minute books and a few other documents; perusal of these began many years before this body had a permanent headquarters and volume after volume had to be brought out of storage to a room in the Law Courts Building in Belfast that was fortunately close to the author's place of work. Here, many lunch-hours were spent going through pages of occasionally tedious handwritten material, but much invaluable information came to the surface. Additionally, the kindness of railway staff in the embryo Ulster Transport Authority who helped in discovery of many old drawings (otherwise about to go to 'salvage') will not be forgotten. While mid- and south Down still remain largely rural in character, what we know as North Down has seen the greatest change since 1950. It is now a commuter belt for Belfast, served by only one suburban railway, to Bangor. Perhaps the greatest error made by the 'founding fathers' of the BCDR was ignoring the geographical fact that Newtownards - always the busiest County Down community outside Belfast - was only nine miles from that city but 13...railway miles away. The General Post Office saw this in 1850 and did not abandon road transport for mails between the two places. Berkeley Wise, the distinguished engineer whose term on the BCDR literally put it on the 'right track', thought a direct railway would be a natural outcome, but was ignored by his Board, and the obvious extension of the BCDR from Bangor to Donaghadee was forgotten until it was too late. The area has been paying for this in road congestion and pollution ever since. It is necessary to mention metrication, even though distance on roads and railways in the United Kingdom is still measured in miles. Varying fractions of a mile were used in laying out the BCDR. In this volume there are references to furlongs (eight of them to a mile) and chains. A surveyor's chain is 66 feet (22 yards), with 80 chains to the mile. Locomotives and rolling stock were built using feet and inches; wheel diameters in feet and cylinders (diameter and stroke) in inches. Confusion reigns when metric equivalents are bracketed! We have had pounds sterling of 100 new pence for decades now, but the value of the pound has diminished markedly and bears no comparison with the pounds, shillings and pence of 50 years ago, themselves devalued from the currency of 1846, when this history began.