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'The land that transport forgot': Locals say Donegal needs better buses and return of rail

Donegal will continue to rely on cars unless public transport links are improved, locals and campaigners believe.

LET’S SAY YOU want to plan a journey by public transport in Donegal in the coming weeks.

You’re going from Bundoran to Buncrana on a weekday at the start of September, a trip across the county from south to north that takes around 90 minutes and 110km if done by car.

You’ll need to take two buses and travel via Northern Ireland with a change in Derry, and the journey will likely take almost three hours, if not four (aside from one bus at 2pm where you could swap at Letterkenny with a journey of around 2 hours and 20 minutes).

The earliest option leaves Buncrana at 9.09am and arrives at Foyle Street Bus Station in Derry at 11.10am. If you can manage to make the 11.10am bus exiting the station at the exact moment you’re due to arrive, you could arrive in Buncrana for 11.45am. If you miss it, the next one is a two hour wait.

The last option on that day would see you leave Bundoran at 5.36pm and arrive in Buncrana at 10.02pm, unless you want to take a slightly later bus and stay overnight in Derry.

At their longest, the buses, which are the only real public transport option available, can take up to four and a half hours – and that’s before you add on any time for travelling to your first bus and then onwards to your final destination.

Until the 1950s, Donegal had an expansive rail network – but now, residents say travelling to and within the county is almost impossible without a car.

Here’s what the railway network in Donegal looked like in 1920:

1920railwayupdated

Here’s the railway lines today:

2021railwaydonegaledited

Antoin Beag Ó Colla, a screenwriter who recently moved back home from Dublin to Machaire Rabhartaigh, a village in the Gaeltacht, told The Journal that he largely relies on private bus companies because of a lack of other options in his area.

“If I want to go anywhere, there is one bus that goes Monday to Saturday that will take me to Letterkenny. That passes my house, which is handy enough, but this weekend I’m going to Dublin, so I have to get somebody to drop me to Gortahork, which is only a three, four-minute drive, but I have to get somebody up at seven in the morning to drop me because there’s no way I could make those buses,” Ó Colla said.

Recently, I got my second Covid jab and because it was the Bank Holiday weekend, I had to book a hotel room in Letterkenny because none of the family were about to drop me out.”

“I had to book a hotel and hang around Letterkenny for around six or seven hours to get a bus because there was no other way home.”

A century ago, Donegal was served by railway lines that stretched to all areas of the county, but the last train was stopped in its tracks in 1959.

“Until the 1950s or so, Ireland was very well connected by the railway network. The problem is that there were decisions made then to cut back, both by the British government [in Northern Ireland] and the Irish government,” said Niall McCaughan, manager of the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre.

“They cut Strabane, which was a major terminus, and Omagh, and that had a major knock-on effect for railways in Donegal. Separately, the Irish government was cutting back,” McCaughan explained.

A local lifeline

When rail was first introduced in Donegal in the 1800s as a means to facilitate commerce, it rapidly changed how people lived their lives.

“Beforehand, there were a lot of isolated farming communities and people never travelled more than ten to twenty miles from their farm. It was a very rural population,” McCaughan said.

“Suddenly, when the trains arrived, you had a way of getting about, you could travel to Dublin or to Derry for the day, or Belfast, or Strabane, or down to Sligo.”

Donegal steam engine A steam engine at Castlefinn, Donegal in 1959 Source: Roger Joanes via Donegal Railway Heritage Centre

Killybegs, a major fishing port, for example, “now had a way of getting their fish transported”.

“It could be caught in the morning and bought in Belfast or Dublin in the afternoon.”

“One of the big things was railway tourism. The way we have cheap flights abroad, package holidays – it was the trains that introduced the package holiday, people could travel and go to the beach, to Killybegs, or travel to Buncrana or wherever,” McCaughan said.

Recreational travel on the trains led to the development of hotels, guesthouses, cafés, and other businesses.

But the railway lines started to close from the mid-1930s to the 50s, spurred on by cut backs in other parts of the Republic and Northern Ireland that reduced links to Donegal and competition from other forms of transport, with the Swilly company moving over to bus services.

“In the 1950s, they started closing down, Lough Swilly in ‘53 and then the Donegal Railway Company closed down. The last train ran in 1959 and there was a massive outcry,” McCaughan said.

“Donegal is quite isolated, there’s a lot of deprivation, and the pulling of railways exacerbated that majorly and it’s still trying to recover from that.”

Reliance on cars

The absence of the train is still felt by people in Donegal, where travelling between towns or to other parts of the island on public transport usually means using a car to reach a bus stop or the airport, and often requires using two or more services to get to a final destination.

In Machaire Rabhartaigh, Ó Colla is considering buying a car, even though he would prefer not to.

“I’m not sure with Covid if I’m needed back in Dublin for work or what the plan is going forward. I don’t want to buy a car, it’s a huge expense, but it looks like I’m just going to have to,” Ó Colla said.

“My parents are great but if I have to get them up in the morning for a bus, it’s not an ideal situation.

“It’s the same thing with the flying. I’d have to get someone to drop me a 25-minute, half hour drive and it’s too much hassle.”

“In Dublin, I used public transport and I walked a lot as well because I was cognisant of my carbon footprint,” he said.

“If we’re expected to be greener, everybody living in the countryside having to have a car is no way to achieve it.”

“In terms of where I am, I realise that I’m in a very small village. I can’t expect a great bus service the whole time, but at the same time, Bus Éireann don’t come in this way at all.”

Another challenge is the timing of bus services, which don’t always leave early enough or run late enough to accommodate commuting to work in the morning or socialising in the evening.

“I’m gay and single at the minute, so me even trying to go for dates in Letterkenny, it’s going to have to be a date that finishes by 9 o’clock. It’s not exactly conducive to a healthy romantic life!”

Tracks and wheels

Bus Éireann operates nine bus routes in Donegal, three of which only run one day a week.

The other six routes run Monday to Saturday with between two and six services a day, with most final services departing between 4.45pm and 6.50pm.

Two run once on Sundays and the other four have no Sunday services.

Transport infrastructure works currently underway in Donegal include footpath additions, extensions, replacements and repairs; the design of pedestrian footbridges; new controlled pedestrian crossings; and new bus shelters in Carndonagh and Moville. 

The Good Information Project will be publishing a detailed list of ongoing tranport infrastructure projects in Donegal and other counties this week.

Steve Bradley of Into the West, a group campaigning for the return of rail to the north-west of the island, believes Donegal needs reliable, frequent and affordable buses to link between towns and a new rail line for a connection to the rest of the country.

Speaking to The Journal, Bradley said that Donegal feels it has been largely “left to its own devices” and that local companies have filled the gaps where State-run transport isn’t sufficient.

“Donegal is the land that transport forgot. It’s so cut off from the rest of the Republic.”

“If you want to go from Letterkenny to Ballybofey, there are buses, but it’s not what you would want it to be – but it’s even worse going from Donegal to other places. There’s real-world impacts of that for businesses, social life, families, studying, you name it,” Bradley said.

shutterstock_1403772215 Road signs in Donegal town Source: Shutterstock/Lukassek

“You’ve had two generations now who have grown up with bus services which are okay, which are infrequent, which don’t run late – and railways are like an alien species. You may as well be talking about space ships,” he said. 

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“There’s large portions where you have to have a car to survive and you would wonder how anyone could survive without one. That’s the bottom line. That’s just for day-to-day purposes, simple things like getting to school.”

Bradley said that restoring rail to Donegal would require a shift away from a focus on financial costs and benefits and instead looking at the human impact of a new railway for the county.

“The problem with Donegal is the population is so small and dispersed that to put in rail, that economic appraisal is more than likely always going to say it’s not worth doing, especially beyond Letterkenny,” Bradley said.

“The way we do things, which is counting the beans and seeing if the cost of doing something is outweighed by the benefits, will never change how Donegal and the west of Ireland is served for infrastructure,” he said.

We need to stop being entirely economically focused and start bringing in other factors such as tourism, population spread, regional balance, equality, quality of life, enhancing the Gaeltacht, all those reasons.”

“Until we make that change away from dry economics of infrastructure towards a more human-centred approach to how we spend on infrastructure, we’ll never improve things in Donegal, or in Mayo, or in Kerry.”

There were no plans set out in the programme for government to consider the return of rail to Donegal, but it did outline that the government would consider the future of the Western Rail Corridor, a stretch of mostly disused railway line in the west of Ireland (further south than Donegal).

The programme for government committed to giving consideration to a report compiled by EY on the future of the corridor, which said that the costs of reviving the line would be greater than the financial benefits.

A review of the report by JASPERS, an EU agency, agreed, but a separate appraisal commissioned by campaign group West on Track authored by Dr John Bradley, a retired research professor of the Economic and Social Research Institute, said there was a “strong business case” for the project.

In April, the Department of Transport and Northern Ireland’s Department for Infrastructure put out a tender for external consultants to conduct a Strategic Rail Review looking at Ireland’s rail network on an all-island basis. 

Two potential routes that Into the West proposes for Donegal are a line connecting Letterkenny to Dublin via Derry, Omagh, and Portadown, or a route from Sligo that either travels through Enniskillen in Fermanagh or through south Donegal via Barnesmore Gap, Bundoran, Ballyshannon, Donegal Town, and Ballybofey.

By investing in rail in the north and west of the country, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could create “a necklace of rail right around the island”, Bradley said.

“We have a loop of rail already from Derry going around in a big circle to Cork. The Western Railway Corridor is starting to link Limerick, Galway and hopefully up to Sligo.”

As well as the economic benefits of that, it would be a real tourist thing. There would be people who would come to Ireland and do a complete loop by rail, stopping off places and staying a few nights and travelling inland, but rail would be the main way to get around. There’s people who would love that and it would be a huge asset to the island.”

“Things are changing. Ireland is left behind as it is in terms of transport… we’ve noticed in the last couple of years, both in terms of politicians and the public, a real change in attitude towards rail.”

“Rail is having a moment whereby something that was dismissed very easily only a few years ago now has a wind in its sails. We hope the decision-makers are sensing that as well.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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