Flag of the United Kingdom Flag of Ulster

Railways in

Northern Ireland

Note regarding flag image: the Ulster Banner shown here was the official flag of Northern Ireland until 1973, since when it has had no official status. As Northern Ireland has no other recognised flag of its own, it is still used to represent Northern Ireland in various sporting competitions. However, caution should be exercised regarding its use in other contexts, as it is strongly associated with Unionist politics to the exclusion of others.

Giant’s Causeway & Bushmills Railway
Train of the Giant’s Causeway & Bushmills Railway at Giant’s Causeway station

Because the whole of the island of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom until the early 20th century, the history of railways in Northern Ireland is closely tied up with that of the Republic.

The first railway in what is now Northern Ireland was the Ulster Railway opened in 1839 between Belfast and Lisburn, a distance of about 7½ miles (12 km). It was built to the possibly unique gauge of 6ft 2in (1880mm), and was extended at this gauge over the next few years to Portadown. However, at about this time a new railway was being promoted between the major Irish cities of Belfast and Dublin, which would link up with various existing railways of disparate gauges. A compromise gauge of 5ft 3in (1600mm) was agreed for all new main line construction in the whole of Ireland. The Ulster Railway was converted to this gauge around 1847 and eventually joined up with the Dublin & Belfast Junction Railway in 1852, completing the important through route between the two cities which would later become an international route.

Besides the 1600mm gauge network, a number of narrow gauge railways sprang up in rural areas, typically of 3ft (914mm) gauge. These had largely disappeared by the 1950s owing to road competition, but portions of a few of them survive as tourist railways. The peat extraction industry also once had extensive networks of narrow gauge railways, but these have fallen out of use as the industry has declined.

Main line railways in Northern Ireland today fall under the umbrella of Translink, a state owned authority owning and operating buses and trains within the province, operating international trains jointly with Irish Rail, and maintaining the rail infrastructure.

See also Station names in Ireland

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Uncredited photo image from the website of Craig Cottage