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'The Other Burma Road'

See also Burma Road Photo Gallery 1981 courtesy of Michael Fox

An integral part of the Sligo to Limerick "Western Rail Corridor" is the still extant but long disused rail line from Collooney Junction, located on the Sligo to Dublin main line, running through the towns of Tobercurry, Charlestown, Swinford and Kiltimagh, to the junction with the Westport - Dublin rail line at Claremorris. This stretch of line, which opened on 1st October 1895, is known more widely as "The Burma Road".

For some time now, communities along this rail route have been growing rapidly in terms of population and business, with increasing passenger and freight traffic volumes, and it is now the opinion of a great many people that the towns concerned and their hinterlands would benefit greatly from the reopening of the line, as part of a new Western Rail Corridor running from Sligo to Galway, Limerick, and beyond.

West on Track-Burma Road near Carrowmore
Burma Road near Carrowmore

Readers will note that in the heyday of the line a journey from Sligo to Claremorris, was described in railway parlance as being in the "up" direction, with travel in the opposite direction being designated as "down the line". Hence the term, "down to Sligo".

Although severed at Collooney Junction and with less than straightforward access at the Claremorris end the rail line remains entirely intact, although covered in places by tarred road crossings.

The line, or "permanent way" as it is more correctly described, appears to be in remarkably good condition throughout, with many stretches free of encroaching vegetation and any attempts by nature to reclaim the track-bed.

This, in spite of the fact that, since the closure of the line to passenger traffic on 15th June 1963, and its final closure to the remaining freight traffic on 30th October 1975, no timetabled trains have traversed the line.

West on Track -
Charlestown Station 1981

An interesting movement did take place however, in 1988, involving the "propulsion" of 2 redundant CIE passenger carriages in front of an Irish Rail diesel locomotive from Claremorris to the recently restored railway station at Kiltimagh. These were to become an important part of the Kiltimagh town museum that had been established in the adjacent goods store. The museum itself adjoins a fine "sculpture park" that includes a very fine metal figure of a Station Master in full uniform, complete with stopwatch, standing large as life on the restored station platform.

Where, one might ask, did "The Burma Road" nickname for the Collooney to Claremorris railway originate?

The answer lies in the difficult terrain through which the railway runs, traversing both bogland and rocky landscapes. Clearly, it must have required great engineering skills in its construction at the close of the nineteenth century. Inspired by the infamous "Burma Road" built, as a "supply" line, by British and other prisoners of war during the Second World War through the jungles of Burma, the Collooney to Claremorris line was nicknamed "The Burma Road", a title which endures to this day.

For those interested in learning more, I would recommend the following two excellent publications detailing the story of "The Burma Road":

  • "The Great Southern & Western Railway" by K A Murray & D B McNeill (published by the Irish Railway Record Society).
  • "The Burma Road" - Claremorris to Collooney Railway - by M Comer & M Murphy (published by Swinford Historical Society).

My personal link to "The Burma Road" is that one of my maternal forebears was, at the time of the construction of the railway, a "lockspitter" (working on the permanent way), on the Swinford to Charlestown section, and my earliest recollections of the line stem from family holidays spent with grandparents in the Swinford area, from Birmingham, in the 1950's and 1960's.

I particularly recall a visit to Swinford station one sunny Summer evening in the early 1960's to meet a favourite uncle returning home from his job in the construction industry in the English Midlands to his farm near that town. The afternoon train from Limerick to Sligo, consisting of two railcars green in colour and adorned with the famous CIE "flying snail" logo, and which he had joined at Claremorris from the Dublin train, was late arriving in Swinford. It was quite full and a number of passengers alighted amid the noisy rattle of the engines and the pungent smell of diesel fumes. One had a sense that it had "laboured" throughout its long journey up the West coast of Ireland. It drew off as noisily as it had arrived, scheduled to take another one and a half hours or so to complete its journey to Sligo.

West on Track -
Claremorris - Sligo Line 1981

One of my prized possessions is a copy of the CIE Passenger Train Timetable for Winter 1958/59, costing 4d (four pence in "old" money, that is). This publication, given to me by Jimmy O'Hara, a Swinford shopkeeper and CIE agent operating the local bus stop at the time, reveals that Swinford along with other towns on "The Burma Road" enjoyed a rail service consisting of one train each way every weekday. The "up" train originated in Sligo at 8.50 a.m. arriving in Limerick at 2.35 p.m., with the "down" train leaving Limerick at 3.15 p.m. and reaching Sligo at 8.35 p.m. Leisurely travel indeed and one can, perhaps, envisage prolonged stops at stations en route, reminiscent perhaps, of that memorable scene at "Castletown Station" (or Ballyglunin, to be precise) in the film "The Quiet Man"

Other treasured Burma Road memorabilia to come into my possession over the years includes a sign from Charlestown station directing would be travellers to the ticket office there, a cast iron sign from a gated crossing near Kiltimagh, enjoining those crossing the railway at this point to close the gate after use, under "severe" penalty of a forty shilling fine from the Great Southern & Western Railway, and a handwritten journal recording goods train movements at Kiltimagh Station for the period shortly before the closure of the line.

In June 1981, during a holiday visit to Swinford I took it upon myself to make a photographic record of "The Burma Road" from Collooney Junction to Claremorris. In the course of undertaking this task, and whilst poking around in undergrowth by a road crossing near Collooney Station (GS & WR that is - Collooney having, at its "peak", 2 other stations, unique for a small village in Ireland!) I discovered a fine cast iron railway sign relating to the road crossing. I covered this up with the intention of returning later to "retrieve" this (probably illegally?), as a worthy addition to my collection of rail artefacts. On so doing a few days later, alas, my treasure had been discovered. The pole to which the sign had been affixed had been sawn through and its upper part complete with "my" sign had disappeared.

West on Track -
Tobercurry Station 1981

At times in the course of walking the track I paused and tried to imagine trains still running on the line, huffing and puffing or "rattling" along amidst an aroma of diesel fumes, as opposed to the more modern traction, which appeared on the line before closure. I wondered if, one day, the trains would run again. Happily, and in response to modern travelling needs this "reality" may soon again be upon us.

There are currently schemes underway to clear the line of trees and vegetation, as part of a programme by Iarnród Éireann to "reclaim the track". One hopes that this is with a view to the eventual reopening of the line and not to make "easier" the passage of a train employed in the ripping up of the track!

Of course musing and dwelling on history and nostalgia will not save "The Burma Road" or support the case for its reopening. My view is that it is up to every town and community along the line, in common with all other towns on the Western Rail Corridor, to present their own vision of what a reopened railway could do for their development and prosperity, in the Ireland of the 21st century. This should include submissions on the generation of passenger and freight traffic in their respective hinterlands, all of which will add to the gathering momentum for the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor.

In conclusion, my view is that "The Burma Road" could easily become an integral part of a network of railcar services "criss-crossing" Counties Sligo, Mayo, Galway and Roscommon with stations and "stopping places" convenient to centres of population and including strategically sited "park and ride" facilities e.g. on major roads such as the N17. The Western Rail Corridor could also be utilised for the movement of freight such as the ever-increasing loads of timber, relieving roads that, quite often, run parallel to the railway line.

© Michael Fox








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