HomeRail NewsIarnród Éireann - 30 years of Irish Rail

Iarnród Éireann – 30 years of Irish Rail

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Iarnród Éireann came into being 30 years ago on 2 February 1987. Since then, there has been a revolution of timetables and services with the rail network being updated from the steam age to one of the most modern and safest in Europe.

Prior to the formation of Iarnród Éireann (IÉ) rail and bus services in the Republic of Ireland had been operated by Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE), the Irish Transport Company, formed on 1 January 1945 from the Great Southern Railway and the Dublin United Transport Company.

Iarnród Éireann operates all internal InterCity, commuter, DART and freight railway services in the Republic of Ireland and, jointly with Northern Ireland Railways, the Enterprise service between Dublin and Belfast. The company also operates road freight services (Navigator) and manages Rosslare Harbour.


During the 30 years of IÉ one of the biggest changes has been with the frequency and journey times of train services on principal routes. In the Dublin area, the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) had been opened from Dun Laoghaire to Howth a few years earlier with 1500v DC overhead power supply and stylish Line-Hoffman-Busch 1983 built two-car EMUs. These services had revolutionised a run-down and truly awful push-pull diesel suburban service.

In 1986, there were just seven direct services between Dublin and Cork (nine on Fridays) with the fastest journey time being two hours 35 minutes – now there are 14 with the fastest journey time of two hours 15 minutes and an aim to reduce that further to two hours.

Waterford had four services taking two hours 20 minutes and now has seven (eight on Fridays) which take around two hours five minutes. Galway had five services taking two hours 25 minutes and now has nine taking around two hours 20 minutes. Until 1986, all InterCity services were locomotive hauled with Cravens type (Mk1) or BREL type Mk2 carriages.

However, these were cascaded to other routes by 1988 when the Mk3 automatic plug door Mk3 carriages had been fully introduced. The Mk4 CAF built push-pull DVT sets of carriages were introduced from 2005 and are exclusively used on the Dublin to Cork route in conjunction with the 100mph 201 class locomotives.


The first sign of the rolling stock revolution to come though was the arrival of the Tokyu Car built 2600 class 2 car suburban diesel railcars in from 1993, these being used initially mainly on the North Dublin routes. Further railcar orders arrived in 1998 with the Alstom built 2700 class and the Tokyu Car built 2800 class in 2000.

Forty outer suburban 29000 class railcars were built by CAF between 2002-5 for the Sligo line and the south eastern line, but are now used on the Rosslare and Dundalk services as well. More was to come though with an order for 120 class 22000 InterCity railcars being placed in 2004 with Rotem, a South Korean rolling stock builder.

This was later increased to 150 vehicles and then another 33 were added in 2007. On delivery these units rapidly replaced the Mk3 locomotive hauled trains on InterCity routes. On the Dublin – Cork they augmented the Mk4 push-pull workings (which were introduced new in 2004-5) to permit a basic hourly interval service.

The cross-border ‘Enterprise’ service also benefited from new rolling stock where a jointly owned fleet of new carriages built by De Dietrich in 1996 were introduced.

For accountancy purposes NIR own the even numbered carriages and IÉ the odd numbers. These replaced Mk2 carriages on the route, the new De Dietrich fleet being push-pull with motive power supplied by a class 201 locomotive. There were six trains on weekdays in 1986 and there are now eight.


At the formation of IÉ the principal InterCity services were hauled by the reliable General Motors 071 class locomotives that had been introduced in 1976.

Freight and local or regional services were normally hauled by the smaller class 141 or 181 General Motors locomotives. There were also the re-engined ‘Metrovic’ 001 class locomotives normally used on freight services until withdrawal in the mid-1990’s and the 121 class single ended General Motor locos used either single on Mk2 push-pull services or in pairs on freight (or occasional passenger services).

On 9 June 1994, the first of the 34 General Motors 201 Class (No. 201), arrived in Dublin by air from London, Canada. The subsequent introduction of the railcars and the downturn in freight resulted in most of the smaller locomotives being withdrawn with the 071 class now used primarily on freight and the 201 class on passenger and freight services (but 12 201 class are currently in store at Inchicore Works now). IÉ currently have plans to re-engine the 201 class with greener and more economic power units.


In the first year of IÉ, passenger services were withdrawn on the Mullingar to Athlone route to the West of Ireland. Services were re-routed from Dublin Heuston station via Portarlington. The next passenger service withdrawal was on the Waterford to Rosslare on 18 September 2010 – this line being owned by the Fishguard & Rosslare Railways and Harbour Company.

Over the 30 years though several lines have re-opened and new services have been introduced.

A new Kildare Line commuter service began operating in May 1994 – Clondalkin, Hazelhatch and Sallins reopened and a new station was built at Cherry Orchard. Funding covered the cost of 10 new diesel railcars from Tokyu Car Corporation.

During 1995, a number of investment projects were announced by the Government, these including the extension of the DART to Greystones and the opening of new stations at Fairview, Kilcock and Drumcondra.

The Kildare Route Project Railway Order was signed by the Minister for Transport on the 5 of December 2006. This would deliver the addition of two tracks between where the planned ‘DART Underground’ would commence at Inchicore and just past Hazelhatch. Work on this was partly completed in early 2010 with the opening of Ireland’s first four track section of mainline railway between Cherry Orchard and Hazelhatch, with the section to Inchicore deferred (along with ‘DART Underground’) due to the economic recession.

To alleviate congestion at Dublin Connolly station a new Docklands station was opened on 12 March 2007 on part of the freight yard complex and was served mainly by services from Clonsilla on the Sligo Line. The next re-opening was on 31 July 2009 when 10 km (6.25 miles) of the former Youghal branch was opened to Midleton (with a passing loop at Carrigtwohill).

By far the longest line re-opening to date was the Western Rail Corridor, the Galway to Limerick line re-opened on 30 March 2010 between Athenry and Ennis to provide a through service. In total 58km of track re- opened. In September 2010 the re-instated Clonsilla to Pace (M3 Parkway) line was opened with a vague intention that it should be extended to Navan sometime in the future.

In November 2016, a new service was opened in Dublin to link the Kildare Line to Connolly Station via the ‘Phoenix Park Tunnel’, a route which hadn’t seen regular passenger services since the Dun Laoghaire boat trains ceased using it. This is initially a ‘Peak’ time service, but once resources become available it is proposed to introduce services throughout the day and at weekends.


Although the Centralised Traffic Control (CTC) centre at Dublin Connolly was first opened during 1974, its area of control was initially quite restricted with the charm of the semaphore signal still to be seen over most of Ireland. The CTC was extended to control the DART in the 1980s. The last 30 years have seen considerable expansions across Ireland to the area it controls and even upgrades to some of the earlier CTC signalling.

Now virtually all main lines are controlled from the Dublin CTC including Dublin to Cork, Galway, Westport, Waterford, Sligo, Rosslare, Newry (on the cross-border line), Mallow to Tralee, Limerick Junction to Limerick and M3 Parkway to Docklands. At present approximately 75 per cent of the IÉ network (approximately 1,500km) is controlled from the CTC. The current CTC is expected to be replaced between 2018 and 2022 with the commissioning of a new control centre.

The expansion of the CTC area has also resulted in many level crossings being converted from manual gates to automatic barrier types.


When Iarnród Éireann came into being around 2.8 million tonnes of freight per year was carried. Major declines occurring in the cement, fertiliser and general freight commodity types resulting in 1.8 million tonnes being carried in 2005 – the year when IÉ operated container trains ceased. The following year sugar beet and the Diageo keg traffic was lost, beet due to removal of the EU subsidy and kegs, on cost grounds were transferred by Diageo to road distribution. This left just the zinc ore traffic between Navan and Dublin Port and the dying cement based traffic. On 31 January 1994, postal trains also ceased to operate.

However, from the ashes of this has risen the re-birth of container and pulpwood traffic. The first breakthrough was the introduction of the Norfolk Line (now called DFDS) services from Waterford Port to Ballina in 2006, followed by the launch of the International Warehousing and Transport (IWT) Dublin to Ballina container ‘liner’ trains in August 2009.

IWT commenced with two services in each direction every week with trains being loaded in Dublin Port on the Alexandra Road tramway. Following major investment in new rail sidings by Dublin Port, opened in 2011, the IWT services transferred to them.


The trainload pulpwood business for Coillte between the west of Ireland and the south east was also re- introduced with some 135 timber trains operating from Ballina and Westport to Waterford to supply the SmartPly factory with around 50,000 tonnes of wood. By 2011, Coillte’s rail tonnage had increased by around 20 per cent up to 60,000 tonnes.

March 2013 saw the relaunch of the DFDS Waterford Port to Ballina liner service which now runs four trains per week – two in each direction. These trains connect into and from the DFDS shipping service from Waterford Port to Rotterdam, allowing exporters access to Europe via the Rotterdam hub.

IWT now operate around seven loaded trains a week in each direction between Ballina and Dublin Port, this making Ballina the busiest freight yard in Ireland handling traffic for DFDS, IWT and Coillte – around 18 loaded trains per week.

In 2016, IÉ undertook trials to allow a 50 per cent increase in the length of freight trains.

Both the ports of Foynes and Galway have the future reintroduction of rail freight noted in their business plans. Of these, Shannon Foynes Port Company is very keen to have the Limerick to Foynes branch line reopened for freight traffic and presently structural surveys are being undertaken to see if the route can be re-commissioned. The port envisages a 50 per cent increase in traffic by 2020 and the current road network would be unable to take the increased volume.


Together with severe funding issues following subsidy cuts, David Franks, the current chief executive, managed to secure funds not only to keep the network operating for now at its present level, but also to continue upgrades on the Dublin – Cork main line to allow 100mph running on the 50-mile stretch between Hazlehatch and Kildare.

Funding for continuation of this work in 2017 has also been granted. Further upgrades such as the removal of level crossings and bridge replacements are expected to bring journey times from Cork to Dublin to under two hours. In the longer term, the findings of the National Transport Authority’s ‘Rail Review’ public survey undertaken in late 2016 is likely to shape how railways in the Republic of Ireland are funded.

The recent increases in passenger numbers being carried have prompted funding also for the return to service of the 1997 built ‘2700 class’ railcars which are currently stored, this being a cheaper option than buying new trains. Other options to be discussed to tackle overcrowding are additional carriages for the 22000 class intercity railcars, an hourly Dublin to Belfast service and electrification to Maynooth or Balbriggan. Reference has already been made to the re-engining of the 201 class locomotives to improve their efficiency and reliability.


Travel ticketing has also been revolutionised in the Dublin area with the introduction of the multi-modal ‘LEAP Card’ which can also be used on the LUAS trams and Dublin buses.

Prestige services operating on the IÉ network have also been a welcome new addition to the scene over the last few years, firstly with the Rail Tours Ireland ‘Emerald Isle Express’ being launched with heritage stock two years ago, followed by ‘Steam Dreams’ tour of Ireland and last year the ‘Belmond Grand Hibernian’ hotel train was introduced using rebuilt Mk3 carriages. All these services pampering to the luxury tour market and are likely to develop over the coming years.

IÉ has many achievements to be proud of already with the almost total modernisation from a ‘steam age’ network to one of the most modern in Europe. From a safety perspective they have recently achieved a period of 142 ‘SPAD free days’ (SPAD – Signal passed at danger) – the longest continuous period on record for IÉ – and that included the period of ‘leaf fall’ where track adhesion is often poor.

IÉ is the only one of the ten largest users of energy in the Irish public sector to have exceeded the Government’s energy efficiency improvement target of 33 per cent by 2020 – IÉ has already achieved a 36 per cent reduction in energy usage.

The additional bonus here for IÉ is the savings made on fuel bills at a time when funding is tight. In January 2017, IÉ was present at the ‘Golden Whistle Awards’ where previous CEO Dick Fearn was Master of Ceremonies and presented four ‘whistles’ to IÉ staff members.

Congratulations to Iarnród Éireann and all their staff on achieving so much since being formed in 1987.

Report by Tim Casterton