Peter Levy recalls the colourful history of the railway lines which ran through East Cork from 1854 to 1987.
IN England it was known as “railway mania”, an explosion of railway projects in the mid-19th century which saw lines constructed all over the country, often on parallel and competing routes.
In Ireland, then as now, the money wasn’t flowing so freely, but it was quickly realised that if your town didn’t have a railway connection it would be left behind economically.
The coming of the railway was vital to east Cork and to the development of towns like Midleton where the whiskey distilling industry became a key industry once its products could be moved swiftly around the country. You could argue, in fact, that the railway was responsible for the growth of housing and businesses in the town.
In Youghal, at the end of the line, the arrival of the railway sparked a building boom as developers rushed to build holiday homes and guesthouses to cater for the influx of visitors arriving by train.
Railways in the19th century were big employers in their own right and the east Cork line was no exception. Now you can run a railway with very few staff — a driver and a ticket checker on the train and almost no station staff with CCTV and ticket machines taking the place of people.
In the 19th century trains would have a minimum of three crew, a driver, a fireman (to shovel coal into the engine’s firebox) and a guard, and each station would have its own station master, porter and ticket issuing and checking staff and maybe even a young man to light the coal fires in the waiting rooms. In addition there would be a shunting crew to couple and uncouple the locomotives and men to clean and fire up the steam engines at the terminals. There would, in Youghal, probably also be a book stall and tea rooms.
So when the Cork and Youghal Railway company was granted legislative sanction to construct rail links between Cork city and the east Cork town of Youghal in 1854 there was a promise of some much-needed employment.
The line was opened in stages and the first section was opened between Midleton and Dunkettle in 1859 by Queen Victoria’s representative in Ireland, the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle.
The official opening of the Cork to Youghal passenger line took place the following year, on May 23, 1860, serving Dunkettle, Little Island, Queenstown Junction, Carrigtwohill, Midleton, Mogeely and Killeagh en route.
Carriages arriving in Cork were drawn over temporary tracks by horses until the opening of the official city terminus at Summerhill in 1861. The Queenstown (Cobh) branch line to serve the Atlantic liners was opened in 1862.
Cork city would eventually see six railway stations built within its city limits — more than many large European cities.
The east Cork project was entirely funded by the railway company itself, unlike railway lines in some other parts of Ireland which were funded by “baronial guarantee”, an early form of development levy in which the ratepayers along the line (very often the landed gentry) had to pay a contribution towards the construction of the line.
The optimism of the Cork & Youghal railway Company on the profitability of the line, however, was ill-founded and by 1866, four years after it was completed, the Cork & Youghal Railway Company find itself in financial difficulty and was forced to sell its railway shares to the Great Southern & Western Railway (GSWR.)
As a consequence, the Youghal junction line was constructed to connect Grattan Hill junction on the Youghal line with the GSWR station at Penrose Quay in 1868.
Summerhill continued to be used as the city terminus for trains arriving from Youghal until the opening of a main line station on the Glanmire Road in 1893 when it was abandoned.
Youghal was relegated to the position of branch on the Cork to Queenstown direct line in 1896.
Difficult years for the Irish economy, combined with the gradual erosion of railway travel by competition from buses and private cars eventually led to regular passenger services to Youghal being abandoned on February 2, 1963.
Goods services continued until June 1978, with harvest-time beet transported by rail until 1981.
The popular summer Sunday excursions to the seaside from the city continued until they were finally abandoned and the final passengers travelled the Youghal line in 1987.
The original track was spiked on to wooden sleepers (later it would be fixed to cast-iron “chairs”) and would have been expected to last for decades.
However, as it was laid in relatively short, bolted-together sections, there would have been problems with distortion due to the heaviness of the steam engines and regular maintenance by a track maintenance crew would have been necessary. Thus, speeds allowable on the line would be around half what is permissible today.
In the early, labour-intensive days of the line, signalling would be entirely mechanical, controlled from a signal box linked to the track and semaphore signals. However, in recent times a driver would have carried a token, known as a “staff” to be handed over to a driver coming from the opposite direction at a passing loop, thus ensuring that only one train occupied the same section of line.
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