The West Clare Railway (WCR) originally operated in County Clare between 1887 and 1961, and has partially re-opened. This 3 ft (914 mm) gauge narrow gauge railway ran from the county town of Ennis, via numerous stopping-points along the West Clare coast to two termini, at Kilrush and Kilkee (the routes diverging at Moyasta Junction). The sys-tem was the last operating narrow gauge passenger system in Ireland and connected with the mainline rail system at Ennis, where a station still stands today for bus and train services to Limerick and Galway. Intermediate stops included Ennistymon, Lahinch and Miltown Malbay. A preservation society maintains a railway museum, and has successfully re-opened a section of the railway as a passenger-carrying heritage line.
The Famine was over and there was a new growth in local businesses. The British Government determined that an improved railway system was necessary to aid in the recovery of the West of Ireland. The West Clare Railway and the South Clare Railway were built by separate companies, but in practice the West Clare Railway operated the entire line. The lines met at Miltown Malbay. In due course the entire line became known as the West Clare Railway.
West Clare Railway:
The 43.4 km West Clare Railway between Ennis and Miltown Malbay was built a few years’ earlier than the South Clare Railway. The first sod was cut on 26 January 1885 at Miltown Malbay by Charles Stewart Parnell, M.P., although actual work on the line had begun in November 1884. The line was opened on 2 July 1887.
South Clare Railway:
The South Clare Railway built the extension from Miltown Malbay to Kilrush, Cappagh Pier (Kilrush Pier) and Kilrush docks with a branch to Kilkee from Moyasta, with work starting on the extension in October 1890 and opening on 11 May 1892. The extension was worked by the West Clare Railway and was initially dogged by poor service and time keeping, but this later improved.
Operation and timekeeping:
The West Clare Railway was the topic of Percy French’s song “Are Ye Right There Michael, are ye right?” (written in 1902), deriding the poor timekeeping and poor track quality of the time. Though amusing, some complained that this jesting nevertheless did little to further the cause for keeping the line open. French wrote the song after successfully prosecuting the railway company for loss of earnings, when a late running train prevented him from attending a performance on time. The company, in turn, appealed the ruling, but French was over an hour late for the court hearing in Ennis. He informed the judge that his lateness was because “I took the West Clare Railway here, your honour”. The railway company’s appeal was unsuccessful.
Many myths have arisen concerning the Percy French incident. The facts are that French had arrived in Kilkee four-and-a-half hours after the scheduled time for a show he was due to give at Moore’s Hall on August 10th 1896. He had been due there at 3.25pm, having begun his journey at Broadstone Terminus in Dublin that morning. The show was late starting as a result, and with a much reduced audience. French won his case at the Ennis Quarter Sessions in January 1897, and was awarded £10 plus expenses. The Clare Journal’s headline for the court hearing was, ‘An Hour With Percy French “free of charge”‘. His award was subsequently upheld in a reserved judgment when the railway company appealed the case two months later at the Clare Spring Assizes, before HL Chief Baron Palles, by which time French had the germ of a song in his head: the line, ‘If you want to get to Kilkee, you must go there by the sea’ was repeated in court although it failed to make it in the song’s final version.
Amalgamation and nationalisation:
In 1925 the company was merged into the Great Southern Railways. In 1945 the GSR was taken over by Córas Iompair Éireann. In the same year, a survey of local businesses was conducted with a view to the possible replacement of the railway by road services. Local campaigners urged that the railway be converted to the Irish standard gauge of 5 ft 3 in (1,600 mm), but CIÉ rejected this on cost grounds.
The West Clare Railway operated a fleet of eleven steam locomotives.
Dieselisation and closure:
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 (almost identical to units built for the County Donegal Railways). These were followed by three diesel locomotives (also built by Walkers). The use of diesel traction reduced operating costs, yet the investment in new rolling stock would largely be wasted by the early closure of the line.
Despite the dieselisation of passenger services in 1952 and freight in 1953 the system was still closed. On 27 September 1960, CIÉ gave notice of its intending closure with effect from 1 February 1961. CIÉ said that the West Clare was losing £23,000 (€1.2M 2006 equivalent) per year, despite the considerable traffic handled. In December it was announced that the line would close completely on 1 January 1961. Eventually the line closed on 31 January 1961 with CIÉ starting work on dismantling the line the day after closure on 1 February 1961.
By the time of its closure the West Clare Railway was the last narrow gauge railway in Ireland offering a passenger service; various lines operated by Bord na Móna continue to operate in connection with the peat industry.
Preservation and re-opening:
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 of track bed. Passenger services were resumed using two new steel coaches with bench seating, parallel to the direction of travel, built by Alan Keef Engineering and outfitted locally in wood by WCR engineers. A small but powerful diesel locomotive built for Channel Tunnel construction work hauled the trains.
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 by Alan Keef Engineering Ltd of Ross-on-Wye. This engine had previously been a static exhibit at the mainline railway station in Ennis. The locomotive was steamed for the first time on July 14 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.
Rolling stock today:
In addition to the steam locomotive Slieve Callan, the railway owns twelve diesel engines, of which two are currently in service, the others awaiting restoration. Those in service are a 4-wheel Channel Tunnel shunting engine and a four-wheel former Bord na Móna shunter. Awaiting restoration are a further nine such Bord na Móna shunters, plus a six-wheel mine shunting engine dating from around 1948.
Two passenger coaches are in service, and assorted maintenance vehicles including a tank wagon, four flat trucks, and four tipper wagons.
Irish standard gauge vehicles
In 2008 an Irish standard gauge ex-Irish Rail 001 class diesel loco, No.015 (formally A15), was acquired for static display.
There are also three standard gauge passenger coaches on site as static exhibits. One of these is used as a reception centre and cafeteria for visitors, and another as a lecture theatre for group visits.
The 5’3 gauge coaching stock located here consists of:
Great Southern Railways Side Corridor carriage No.1325.
Iarnród Éireann mkIIa carriages Nos.4108, 4110 and 4402 (restaurant).
A collection of mainline diesel locomotives owned by the Irish Traction Group has subsequently been located to the preserved railway (during 2009 and 2010) for storage, or as static exhibits.