Rail and Road

The introduction of the first motorised road passenger service in 1904 was to confront the railways with what in many instances proved to be a terminal challenge. In 1859 there were four horse-drawn omnibus routes in the Dublin area. Motorised services, however, met with little success until after the Great War: Dublin's first bus route was inaugurated in 1919 by the Clondalkin Omnibus Co. It was taken over in 1926 by the Irish Omnibus Co. (IOC) which entered into an agreement with the GSR, then prohibited by law from operating road services. The DUTC inaugurated its first bus service in 1925. In 1934 the IOC was taken over by the GSR. Road passenger transport thus became virtually a railway monopoly, since the 1932 Road Transport Act had the effect of virtually extinguishing private involvement, a situation which was to last for a generation.


A Tribunal of Enquiry into Public Transport was set up in December 1938, but The Emergency caused the postponement of any major decision until, in 1944, a Transport Act created a merger between the GSR and the DUTC to form a new company, Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ). With the return to normality this body was soon in difficulties. In 1949 the Milne report recognised that, for the size of the population, the country was over-endowed with a road/rail network. The 1950 Transport Act arising from this report brought CIÉ, which was also given responsibility for the moribund canal system, within the State sector.

The war took its toll of both the Northern Ireland railways and the bus fleet. In 1946, a White Paper recommended the merger of the bus and railway system north of the border into one organisation, the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA). The cross-border lines operated by the GNR, the Sligo-Leitrim (SLNCR) and the small Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway, which was in British ownership, remained outside the merger.

The GNR successfully challenged the prevailing presumption that the railways had little to contribute to the post-war transport pattern by inaugurating, on 11 August 1947, the Enterprise expresses between Belfast and Dublin (later briefly extended to Cork), which set new standards both of speed and comfort. In 1958 the GNR, which had passed into the joint control of the Belfast and Dublin governments in 1953, was divided between the two administrations.

In the Republic the fortunes of CIÉ nevertheless continued to disimprove and, in 1956, it sought restrictions on private road freight transport as an alternative to ever-increasing State subsidies. A 1958 Act required it to break even by 1964, and when it was clear that this was not going to be achieved, another Act recognised the distinction between its commercial and socially desirable services which would in future be in receipt of Government subsidy. The railway system seemed to have little economic future, though the McKinsey report of 1970 concluded that it would cost more to close it down than to attempt to remedy the situation by 'selected modifications and investment'.

There were, however, positive signs: the introduction of a CTC (Central Traffic Control) system and the acquisition of powerful new locomotives in the mid-seventies greatly improved services, and by 1979 passenger journeys were exceeding 17 million annually, while freight, now concentrated on container and heavy bulk traffic, was buoyant. In the meantime CIÉ road transport operations were faring somewhat better. The introduction of the first Bus Éireann Expressway services to Cavan, Monaghan, Enniskillen and Derry in 1961 had been followed by the extension of the route system to 50 destinations nationwide and, in 1975, 307 million people travelled by bus as against 14 million by train.

The inauguration of DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transport) services in 1984 with the electrification of the Howth-Bray line signalled the realisation that rail still had a role to play, particularly in the context of city commuter movements. That realisation, however, was slow to express itself in the thinking of successive governments, which continued to vacillate on the implementation of a consistent transport policy.

By the late 1980s, the underfunded system was unable to replace obsolescent equipment or maintain adequate standards of safety without drastically reducing train speeds. CIÉ nevertheless introduced an upgraded service on the Dublin-Cork route. The Dublin-Belfast route was jointly operated by CIÉ, and what with the breakup of the UTA had become Northern Ireland Railways,  and benefited from the availability of EU cross-border funding and modern TGV-style stock was introduced in 1997. In recent years substantially increased funding, the result of belated official recognition of the key role of the railway in public transport, has enabled Iarnród Éireann to relay main lines with continuously welded rail, thus enhancing both safety and service speeds, and to acquire a large fleet of state-of-the-art diesel railcars and other modern equipment.

It was the rapidly-worsening traffic situation in Dublin that finally induced a serious attempt to address the public transport deficit in the 1990s. A start was made on the provision of dedicated bus lanes, and new equipment was acquired. A Dublin Transport Authority (1987) was given no real powers.

The DART was, however, extended to Malahide and Greystones after long delays and new trains ordered, while station platforms are being extended to accommodate 8-coach units. The LUAS light rail system, which had been under development for some years, has been the victim of political vacillation, poor planning and inefficient management resulting in serious cost over-runs, and in its current status is reduced to two lines with no connection, necessitating the construction of two separate maintenance and storage depots. The long overdue rail link to the airport, whether heavy rail, LUAS or as part of a projected metro system, remains in limbo. Meanwhile, strong local pressure to restore the western rail link between Sligo and Rosslare via Limerick, together with several other demands for regional rail services, have failed to produce any positive official response.


Several preservation and restoration projects have, nevertheless, been undertaken relating both to the rail and waterway infrastructure. The Belfast Transport Museum had been responsible for creating an all-Ireland collection of historic vehicles, both road and rail, while the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland led the way in restoring and operating historic locomotives and rolling stock. Active tourist-orientated railway restoration projects include the Giant's Causeway, the Cavan & Leitrim, the West Clare and the Waterford and Suir Valley. The Royal Canal, closed to all traffic in 1960, has been substantially reopened to pleasure craft while the restoration of the derelict Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Canal as the Shannon-Erne Waterway together with major improvements to the Shannon navigation through Limerick has opened free passage from the Estuary almost to Ballyshannon. The waterways, now seen as a major tourist amenity, are managed by Waterways Ireland, an all-Ireland body set up under the terms of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

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