Restoration of West Cork railway would undo one of Ireland’s 'biggest transport mistakes'

Restoration of West Cork railway would undo one of Ireland’s 'biggest transport mistakes'

A train crossing the Chetwynd viaduct outside Cork city in March 1961. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive/Ref 657L

The restoration of rail services to West Cork would undo one of Ireland’s “biggest transport mistakes”, a commuter lobby group has said.

The Cork Commuter Coalition has launched a major new vision document  which will now feed into the Government's All-Island Strategic Rail Review, which the group said needs to discuss ‘how’ and not ‘if’ rail corridors can be constructed in the most efficient and beneficial fashion.

Coalition spokesman Ciarán Meers said he hopes their ‘West Cork Rail Report' will prompt a discussion about why rail should be restored to West Cork, and that it will translate into political pressure and, ultimately, political action.

“We have seen for many years now politicians going to bat for road projects. We hope they’ll do the same now for rail,” he said.

West Cork once boasted a massive rail network, with four main corridors linking the city to the key county towns in mid-Cork, in the harbour, and along the southwest coast.

Against the backdrop of changing living, transport and commuting patterns, the last passenger train journey on the last of those corridors was in 1961.

“The removal of rail from West Cork is one of the long lamented planning decisions of the post-independence decades, and has had sizable knock-on effects in how West Corkonians live, work, and travel,” the report says.

Those four historic rail corridors have effectively been “written off as a lost cause”, with little or no serious examination of how the rail corridors, or segments of them, could be restored, it says.

The West Cork Rail Report is the first major examination into the potential reopening of the region’s railways in over half a century, Mr Meers says.

And while it does not include any detailed engineering, economic or environmental appraisals, or deal with the potential costs to the State of restoring rail services in the region, it does examine the potential challenges and opportunities.

It focuses on the potential of three main rail corridors — with a suggested 33km Cork to Macroom line, an 87km route from Cork to Bantry via Bandon, Clonakilty and Skibbereen, and a 36km Cork to Kinsale route via Passage West and Carrigaline, and a 4km spur to Crosshaven.

It calls for a rail network that would link Cork city, Cork Airport and the Port of Cork’s facilities at Ringaskiddy, also a large employment hub, with key towns in those corridors with a population of at least 2,500, including Macroom, Skibbereen, Bantry, Kinsale, Ringaskiddy, Carrigaline, Clonakilty, Passage West, Crosshaven and Bandon, all converging on Kent Station in the city centre.

It suggests using an electrified tram-train system, which could follow the route of existing roads and motorways in places, and share road space in other areas where required.

Such a system would be able to use the infrastructure proposed under the Cork Light Rail system which will run west-to-east through the city.

It also suggests using historic elements of infrastructure, including the landmark Chetwynd Viaduct, which carried the Cork, Bandon, and South Coast Railway over what is now the N71 and which is earmarked for use as a future greenway, the Goggins Hill Tunnel, and the Kilpatrick Tunnel near Bandon.

“While these pieces of infrastructure have been unused for decades, many remain in ‘good quality’, and their refurbishment to modern standards may provide an important role in connecting key areas,” the report suggests.

“The All-Island Strategic Rail Review has the once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore this lost connectivity to an area that has been deprived of it for so long.

“In this report, we have provided in-depth analysis on the various benefits, challenges, and opportunities that rail in West Cork can bring, and how any such restoration should be best approached.

The Strategic Rail Review is accepting public submissions until this Friday, January 21, 2022.

A train at Clonakilty Junction - part of the West Cork railway which closed on March 31, 1961. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive/Ref 657L
A train at Clonakilty Junction - part of the West Cork railway which closed on March 31, 1961. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive/Ref 657L

What we lost

The Cork and Muskerry Light Railway operated from 1887 to 1934, connecting Cork City along a narrow-gauge line to areas northwest of the city, including Donoughmore, Blarney, and Coachford, and linked to the terminus at Cork’s Western Road. Parts of the track were shared with the Cork City Tramways.

The Cork, Blackrock, and Passage Railway operated from 1850 to 1932 along the harbour coast on an Irish standard-gauge railway but later converted to narrow gauge. 

It connected Carrigaline, Passage West, Monkstown, and Crosshaven with a station at Cork’s Albert St. A former section of track now comprises the Passage railway greenway, and which has been earmarked as a potential route of the proposed Cork light rail system.

The Macroom Direct Railway operated from 1866 until 1935 as a standard-gauge railway, running from Cork city to Macroom, serving Bishopstown and Ballincollig along the way. It initially shared a city terminus with the Cork, Bandon, and South Coast Railway (CBSCR) at Albert Quay, before it later changed to a terminus at Capwell Road.

The CBSCR, the longest and largest of all the Cork railways, was in operation from 1849 until 1961, and operated as Irish standard-gauge. The main trunk ran from Albert Quay to Bantry, with a number of spurs, some on different gauges, serving major towns. A spur after Ballinhassig served Kinsale, the Clonakilty branch after Bandon served Timoleague and Courtmacsherry, with the Skibbereen branch, splitting off at Drimoleague, to serve, via a light rail, Baltimore, and another alignment to Schull.

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