Historic West Clare narrow-gauge railway transformed Ireland’s west | Season 1 – Episode 99
Wheels Feb 21, 2022
The West Clare Railway (WCR) was a narrow-gauge railway which operated from 1887 until 1961. It ran from Ennis, with two termini, at Kilrush and Kilkee, with the routes diverging at Moyasta Junction.
Work began on the 43.4 km (27 mi) WCR in November 1884. Up to then there had been many attempts made to provide railway transport connections to West Clare but the area was just too remote for investors to take the risk of spending their money on such ventures. They could not imagine there being enough freight or people for a railway to make a profit.
Then, in answer to exactly this problem in such areas of Ireland, Parliament passed an Act called “The Tramways Act” in 1883 the provisions of which included clauses to permit a narrow gauge track (thereby more than halving the building costs) and giving guaranteed returns to the investors.
Dubs & Co of Glasgow were contracted to supply the rolling stock the first of these arrived in March 1892. These locomotives were designed to pull the expected loads at the timetabled speed of 25 mph over gradients as fierce as 1 in 50 along a track of 48 miles in length. They were therefore large and powerful engines built to the limits of the permitted loading gauge.
The railway timetable had three trains each way between Ennis and Kilkee with branch line connections to Kilrush. WCR brought benefits to many of the areas it served. For example the Burren cattle trade was enhanced by the ease of transporting cattle away from the market. The Kilrush Horse Fair and the seaside resort Kilkee, always popular saw an influx of people. In addition new goods and services were brought to the shops by travelling salesmen, postal services quickened by degrees.
By the turn of the century, the timetable was showing five trains each way. More than 200.000 passengers travelled the line and 80.000 tonnes of freight and livestock were carried each year.
In the mid 1920s efforts were made from to modernise the system, and to make it safer and more cost-effective including the purchase of up-to-date carriages. This came about because Great Southern Railways (GSR). based in Dublin acquired the rolling stock and locomotives. Unfortunately local business lost out as maintenance and even ballast came from GSR suppliers based outside of the area.
In the early 1950s, under CIÉ management, the West Clare Railway became a pioneer in the use of diesel traction. Passenger services were largely operated by four new articulated diesel railcars, built by Walker Brothers of Wigan, England. The use of diesel traction reduced operating costs but the financial position did not significantly improve and closure became more and more likely. “And so it was that on 27th September 1960 the death sentence was pronounced: it was declared publicly that the line would close on 31st January 1961.” The line closed on that date.
Starting in the mid-1990s, efforts were made by a preservation society to recreate part of the original route. This group succeeded in acquiring Moyasta station, and 5 km (3.1 mi) of track bed. On 5 July 2009 the West Clare Railway’s original steam locomotive No 5 Slieve Callan was returned to the West Clare Railway at Moyasta Junction following restoration in England. This engine had previously been a static exhibit at the mainline railway station in Ennis. The locomotive was steamed for the first time on 14 July marking the return of steam to the West Clare railway after an absence of over 57 years.
The railway has since acquired a number of redundant diesel locomotives, mostly from the Irish Bord na Móna; these are being gradually restored and returned to service. The station house is also now a railway museum and much of the narrow gauge infrastructure is still in place.
Information sources: 1. Clare County Library 2, Rogerfarnworth.com 3. Westlarerailway.com
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