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Northern Ireland Railways

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Title: Northern Ireland Railways  
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Subject: Rail transport in Great Britain, Derry, National Rail, Economy of the United Kingdom, Transport in the United Kingdom, Ulster, County Londonderry, County Armagh, Multiple unit, Ballycastle, County Antrim
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Northern Ireland Railways

NI Railways
Franchise(s): Government-owned subsidiary
Not subject to franchising
Main Region(s): Northern Ireland
Fleet size: 48
Stations called at: 54
National Rail abbreviation: N/A: Not part of National Rail
Parent company: NITHCo (Translink)
Web site:
Route map

NI Railways, also known as Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) and for a brief period Ulster Transport Railways (UTR), is the railway operator in Northern Ireland. NIR is a subsidiary of Translink, whose parent company is the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company (NITHCo), and is one of three state-owned train operators in the United Kingdom, the others being East Coast and Eurostar. It has a common Board of Management with the other two companies in the group, Ulsterbus and Metro (formerly Citybus). The rail network in Northern Ireland is not part of the National Rail network of Great Britain and NIR is the only commercial non-heritage passenger operator in the United Kingdom to operate a vertical integration model, with responsibility of all aspects of the network including running trains, maintaining rolling stock and infrastructure, and pricing.

NIR jointly runs the Enterprise train service between Belfast and Dublin with Iarnród Éireann. There is no link to the rail system in Great Britain, although proposals have been made.


NIR was formed in 1968 when it took over from the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA), which had operated the province's railways since 1948. Much of the network closed during the 1950s and 1960s, declining from 900 miles (1,500 km) to 206.61  miles (330.58 km) at present.

Suffering frequent disruption and damage to infrastructure caused by the Troubles and starved of investment by successive political administrations, the NIR network had become badly run down by the 1960s, with old rolling stock and poorly maintained track. NIR's last steam locomotives were withdrawn in 1970.

In 1970, NIR re-launched the once-popular Enterprise between Dublin and Belfast with three new NIR Class 101 diesel locomotives built by Hunslet in England and Mark 2B carriages built by BREL. Despite frequent interruptions due to bomb scares, the service has remained a more or less constant feature of the NIR network.

As older trains became obsolete in the 1970s, the Class 80 slam-door diesel-electric multiple unit was introduced. BREL built these units between 1974 and 1977 to British Rail's Mk 2B design with some trailer cars rebuilt from hauled stock. The power cars are powered by an English Electric 4SRKT engine, nicknamed 'Thumpers' due to their characteristic sound, and have two English Electric 538 traction motors. These entered service on the suburban lines around Belfast, becoming a stalwart on the whole network. Now a rare sight, a few remain in service primarily on the Larne-Belfast line and the Coleraine-Portrush Line. In the early 1980s, NIR purchased one of the prototype LEV Railbuses built to test the railbus concept. This was intended for the Coleraine-Portrush branch, but was withdrawn due to the capacity constraints of a single car. A plan was mooted to utilise ite on the Lisburn-Antrim line to prevent it from being closed. This proposal failed, again because of the limited capacity.[1]

NIR has three EMD class 111 locomotives, 111–113, for freight and passenger use, built in 1980 (111–112) and 1984 (113).

During the eighties it was apparent that additional trains would be needed. BREL built nine 450 Class sets on former Mk 1 underframes between 1985 and 1987. The power cars have an English Electric 4SRKT engine recovered from former 70 Class units (except 457, which uses the engine recovered from 80 Class power car 88) and have two English Electric 538 traction motors. The sets are three-car diesel-electric multiple units, based on a more modern British design, with air-operated sliding doors. Now in the process of a mid-life refurbishment, they continue in service.

In 1994, NIR bought two EMD 208 Class locomotives identical to Iarnród Éireann's 201 Class. These haul the cross-border Enterprise dedicated trains of modern carriages.

In 2004/2005, NIR received 23 3000 class diesel multiple units from CAF of Spain in an £80m order.[2] The final unit, 3023, arrived in Belfast Harbour on 18 July 2005.[3] All units had entered service by 24 September 2005. They operate principally between Bangor, Portadown and Londonderry and Belfast.


The latest performance figures for NIR according to Translink are 99% of trains arriving at the final destination within 5 minutes and 100% within 10 minutes of the scheduled time. Among other accolades, NIR won the UK Rail Business of the Year Award for 2008[4]

Rolling stock

Current fleet

Class Image Type Top speed Number Routes operated Built
 mph   km/h 
Class 111 Diesel Locomotive 90 145 3 Infrastructure duties 1980 - 1984
Class 3000 Diesel Multiple Unit 90 145 23 Belfast - Londonderry
Belfast - Newry
Belfast - Bangor
Belfast - Larne
2002 - 2004
Class 4000 Diesel Multiple Unit 90 145 20 Belfast - Larne
Belfast - Londonderry
Belfast - Newry
Belfast - Bangor
2010 - 2012

NIR also owns two 201 Class diesel locomotives, which operate as part of a pool with Iarnród Éireann's fleet, and half of the 28 De Dietrich stock coaches used by the Enterprise Belfast-Dublin service. These units have their own unique livery, and do not operate under NIR branding or on any other services in Northern Ireland or the Republic.

In 2005, NIR investigated obtaining seven Class 222 DEMUs built for the British network, but these entered service with their intended operator Midland Mainline. They would have required significant modification to enable NIR to use them, including conversion from standard gauge to Irish gauge.[5]

In 2007, NIR announced plans to purchase up to 20 trains under its "New Trains 2010" proposal following the confirmation of its expected budget. This fleet replaced the remaining Class 80 and Class 450 trains by March 2012. Renamed as "New Trains Two", this project went out to tender in late 2007, with the supplier due to be appointed in early 2009. Work on the new trains would begin shortly thereafter with the units entering service from 2011 onwards.[6] In March 2009 it was announced that CAF had been selected to build the new fleet, named Class 4000.[7] The first units were delivered in March 2011, with entry into service in September 2011[8]

NIR has retained one Class 80 unit (three power cars and two driving trailers) as its sandite train during the 2012 and 2013 leaf fall seasons. It is planned that a pair of Class 450 units will take on this role.

Past fleet

 Class   Image   Type   Built   Withdrawn   Notes 
MED Diesel Multiple Unit 1952-1954 1973-1978 Intended for local services
around Belfast
MPD Diesel Multiple Unit 1957-1962 1981-1984 Intended for longer distance
former NCC routes and
70 Class Diesel Multiple Unit 1966-1968 1985-1986 Passenger DMU.
Engines recovered for
use in 450 Class units.
80 Class Diesel Multiple Unit 1974-1978 2005-2012 Passenger DMU.
Also used for Sandite
duties, until 2012.
101 Class Diesel locomotive 1970 1989 Intended for loco hauled
Enterprise services
104 Class Diesel locomotive 1956-1957 1993 Originally built for CIÉ;
six transferred to NIR
in 1986
450 Class Diesel Multiple Unit 1985-1987 2011-2012 Passenger DMU.
RB3 Diesel Multiple Unit 1981 1989 Prototype built for British
; transferred to NIR
in 1983
Class 1 Diesel locomotive 1969 1989 Shunter


NIR maintains the following lines:

NIR operates regular passenger trains along the following routes (only major stations are listed):

Signalling is controlled from Coleraine (Coleraine to Portrush), Portadown (the border to Great Victoria Street), and Belfast Central (Great Victoria Street and the rest of the network)

On the cross-border route between Belfast and Dublin, NIR operates the Enterprise in conjunction with Iarnród Éireann.

Suspended routes

Following the re-opening of the 15-mile (24 km) Antrim - Bleach Green line in June 2001,[9] which had been closed since 1978, NIR ceased passenger operations between Lisburn and Antrim on 29 June 2003. Combined with the new Dargan Bridge across the River Lagan in Belfast, the Bleach Green route offered faster journeys between Derry, Coleraine, Ballymena, Antrim and Belfast.

The Lisburn-Antrim railway line is still maintained, and occasional crew training operations are performed. While it is also available as a diversionary route, Ballinderry, Glenavy and Crumlin stations have closed.


The development of railways in Northern Ireland has been linked to the future economic growth of the region, and as a way of reducing road congestion.[10] One of the major challenges that NIR has faced is the limited number of trains available for service at peak times. The limited fleet size has led to services being cancelled due to failures or delays. This can lead to widespread disruption across the network and potentially a huge loss in revenue. Upon its establishment in 1998, the Northern Ireland Assembly put in place an investment programme costing £100 million to bring about major improvements. This saw projects including the purchase of the 3000 Class trains, the complete relaying of the Belfast-Larne line and the construction of a new maintenance depot.[11] Following completion of this, as part of its long-term investment programme for NIR Translink conducted a "Strategic Rail Review" in 2004, an independent review of rail services to determine its funding request under the Comprehensive Spending Review. This report determined that so-called "lesser used lines" were an important and economically viable part of the total network, and that investment should be consistent rather than in the "stop-go" manner of previous years.[12]

A debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 14 May 2007[13] raised several proposals as to how the railway network could be improved:

  • Reopening of existing but closed infrastructure, notably the Lisburn-Antrim line
  • Improvement of the infrastructure on the Belfast-Londonderry line through, at the very least, the installation of passing loops to allow service frequency to be increased, and upgrading the track to allow higher speeds.

Pressure groups have advocated the protection of former routes, where the track has been lifted but the trackbed remains intact, to enable these to be reinstated for commuter traffic as an alternative to increased road building.[14]

In October 2007, following the CSR that provided funding allocation to the Northern Ireland Executive, the Department for Regional Development announced its draft budget. Conor Murphy, the Regional Development Minister, stated that approximately £137 million could be allocated from for investment in the railways for the period 2008-2011.[15]

In June 2008, Brian Guckian, an independent transport researcher from Dublin, presented a wide-ranging proposal to Translink for a £460 million expansion of the network called Northern Ireland Network Enhancement (NINE). This proposes the return of the network to several towns that have not had access to rail services for many years; the main part of the proposal would see the Londonderry-Portadown line re-opened, which would link Omagh, Strabane and Dungannon, with branches to Enniskillen and Armagh. However none of these enhancements are programmed to go to planning over the course of the next decade as of early 2013.


The rail network is focussed on Greater Belfast. Both the Bangor and Larne lines have been re-laid in recent years, enabling timetable improvements to be delivered.[16] The only significant "inter-city" routes are the main line between Belfast and Dublin, which covers services to Newry; and the Belfast-Londonderry line. This line is single track with crossing loops north of Mossley West and single track only west of Castlerock, which limits the service in both frequency and speed; in the current timetable the train takes 2hr 20 m[17] while the bus takes an hour less.[18] The pressure group Into the West, which campaigns for improved rail links to the North West region, has stated that the need for a quality rail service, as part of a larger integrated transport policy, is vital to the economic development not just for the city of Londonerry but for the wider cross-border region.[19]

On 21 November 2007, the Regional Development Minister announced that the investment strategy being considered by the NI Executive included the relaying of the Belfast-Londonderry line north of Coleraine, planned to include new signalling and a new crossing loop, allowing more trains. The cost has been estimated at £64 million, and has been projected to begin in 2011, lasting two years. Prior to the major relaying of the Coleraine-Londonderry section, £12 million will be spent on improving the section between Ballymena and Coleraine,[20] on which work has already begun. This will see the stretch between Ballymena and Coleraine close completely for four months, with a replacement bus service. Trains will continue to run between Londonderry, Coleraine and Portrush, with a small fleet stabled at Coleraine[21] - four trains have been stabled instead of the three previously reported. Once the project has been completed, there is a further proposal to add two trains per day, enabling journey times between Belfast and Londonderry to be reduced by up to 30 minutes.[22] As part of this plan, Translink envisages an hourly service to Londonderry, half-hourly to Ballymena. There have been proposals to improve the Belfast-Dublin line between Knockmore and Lurgan, enabling journey times to be reduced and frequency increased.[15] This will improve NIR's services and allow an hourly Enterprise service to Dublin.[16]

In May 2008, the Regional Development Minister announced that his department would commission a study, in conjunction with Donegal County Council, to investigate the effects a resurrection of railway services in the north-west of Ireland with a long-term projection of building a railway line connecting Londonderry with Sligo through County Donegal.[23]

As part of NIR's plans for its new rolling stock, it is constructing a new traincare depot next to Adelaide station on the site of the old freight yard. As a means of improving timings of its services, Belfast Great Victoria Street is planned to undergo a major refurbishment that will see the platforms lengthened and the curves reduced, together with the addition of a new fifth platform, all planned to bring about the transfer of Enterprise services from Belfast Central.[24]

Further plans are afoot to double the track from Monkstown to Templepatrick, to further increase capacity on the Londonderry line. This is due to be completed by January 2015.

Armagh railway line

Government Minister for the Department for Regional Development, Danny Kennedy MLA indicates railway restoration plans of the line from Portadown to Armagh.[25]

Airport links

Speculation remains that the Lisburn-Antrim route could re-open, potentially to offer an alternative Antrim - Lisburn - Belfast service. The line is maintained both for crew training and as a diversionary route, and passes close to Belfast International Airport at Aldergrove. For a number of years there have been suggestions for a station to serve the airport.[26] The airport has marked the building of a new station in its list of future plans,[27] while EasyJet, which is the largest operator into Belfast International, have been strong in advocating an airport rail link.[28] The reopening of the Lisburn-Antrim line is seen not simply in terms of provision of a link to the airport - it would also allow for the further economic development of the area, which has seen increases in population as people use the towns in South Antrim as dormitory settlements for Belfast.[29] In May 2009, the Minister for Regional Development stated that a proposal had been received from a private developer, the Kilbride Group, to restore the Knockmore line, indicating that he would be prepared to part fund a study into this if the local authorities provided the rest of the funding. The route is also included in a wider study of the development of the Northern Rail Corridor due at the end of 2009[30]

The Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan 2015 identifies the need to improve transport links to George Best Belfast City Airport from the city centre. The BMAP proposed a light rail line from the city centre that would have interchanged with a new railway station at Tillysburn, serving both the airport and the Holywood Exchange retail development.[31] However, in April 2008 the decision was taken not to proceed with the light rail project, with the DRD choosing to implement a new bus-based network.[32][33] The pressure group Rail 21 has stated that the Tillysburn proposal is insufficient for what the new station is expected to provide - a link to the airport, transport provision for Holywood Exchange and a park and ride facility. Instead it proposes a dedicated airport station, similar to Glasgow Prestwick Airport, connected directly to the terminal, with Tillysburn half a mile away serving Holywood Exchange, instead of Tillysburn providing the link to the airport.[34]

There have also been calls, as part of the wider upgrade of the rail route to Derry, for a railway station connecting to City of Derry Airport, which is close to the railway line. However, the Government has determined that the number of passengers using the airport is not sufficient to justify a station.[35]

Rolling stock

Although the introduction of the Class 3000 trains has been a success, they were a like-for-like replacement for the Class 80 units rather than an expansion of the fleet. Due to the limited number of new units, some of NIR's older rolling stock has had to be retained, notably the entire Class 450 on the Belfast-Larne route. To enable NIR to maintain its levels of service, it has set about upgrading some of its older rolling stock. In 2005, the Class 450 fleet was refurbished to a standard close to that of the Class 3000 units, which is intended to see them through to a withdrawal date of around 2012. There will be refurbishment of up to three four-car Class 80 units, and the conversion of the locomotives and coaches to push-pull operation with the addition of the DBSO obtained from 'one', to ensure that passenger rolling stock levels can be maintained up to the introduction of new rolling stock.[36]

One of the major projects instigated by Translink is "New Trains Two" (formerly "New Trains 2010"), which will see the purchase of a new batch of rolling stock. At minimum, this was to be like-for-like replacement of the Class 450 trains, which are due to be withdrawn by 2012. However, it has been determined that in order to deliver improved frequency of service on the network the size of NIR's fleet must be increased, and with that must come associated infrastructure improvements.[12] The announcement of the investment programme confirmed "New Trains 2010", which will procure at least 20 new trains to both replace the remaining Class 80 and Class 450 units and provide additional capacity.[15] The specification given by the DRD states that the new trains are to be used to provide both inner and outer suburban commuter services and express services between Belfast and Dublin.[37] The Class 4000 fleet entered service on 29 September 2011.[6] Twenty three-car units have been specified with an option to purchase an additional 20 vehicles, allowing the units to be lengthened to four cars.[38]


External links

    • Official site

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