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A Station Once Again!

The Re-birth of Swinford Railway Station

Michael Fox

Not long after my return to my "roots" in County Mayo to live during 2002 I became actively involved with the "West=on=Track" community-based campaign to reopen in its entirety the "Western Rail Corridor", from Sligo to Galway, Limerick and beyond.

My contribution to this extremely well orchestrated campaign which to date has achieved very positive results (although there is still further work to be done) has been two fold. At grassroots (or perhaps "trackbed") level in Swinford as a member of the local campaign support group, I have been helping to muster support for the reopening of the line, and our own station on this line, at the same time working directly with the prime movers in the campaign providing editorial for local newspapers, features for various publications, and material for the campaign website (www.westontrack.com) as well as engaging in correspondence with relevant government ministers and departments on behalf of the campaign.

Whilst I could have been attracted to the campaign for nostalgic reasons, and as a long time rail enthusiast, my main motivation has in fact been a desire to see the restoration of a very important piece of infrastructure lying neglected in the grass of the west of Ireland, to meet the different types of travelling and transport needs that now exist here, and for the undoubted economic, social, tourism etc benefits that this will bring to this region of a country acknowledged as having one of the most dynamic economies in Europe at the present time.

The website includes a series of photographs which I took in 1981 (armed with a Kodak "Instamatic" camera) of the whole length of that part of the abandoned line known as "The Burma Road", this name an overture to the difficult terrain traversed by the line, from its commencement at Collooney Junction, near Sligo, to Claremorris, where it intersected the Dublin/Westport/Ballina main line. This was some five years after the last "pick up" freight train had travelled the length of the railway, the passenger service have gone by the board some thirteen years previously.

At that time, along many stretches of the railway, the tracks were disappearing into the undergrowth and encroaching trees and bushes, stations and railway gatekeeper's cottages lay silent, derelict and abandoned, except for the odd building taken into private ownership. The associated paraphernalia of the railway, or rather what was left of it, lay disconnected, bent, broken and rusting, with signal posts and gantries once standing proud now devoid of their semaphore signal arms, long gone along with many of the splendid cast iron warning signs of one type or another which had adorned the railway structures, "permanent way", gates at farmers accommodation crossings etc, and no doubt now taking pride of place in many a railway enthusiasts "railwayana" collection.

A milestone (or milepost?) in the "West=on=Track" campaign was achieved last year when the government here (in a timely manner, surprise, surprise, ahead of a general election expected in the next eighteen months or so) rolled out its "Transport 21" master plan for transport improvements in this country. It included in its provisions (albeit largely focussed upon the perceived transportation needs of the eastern part of this country) timescales, inexplicably lengthy in the opinion of many, for the phased refurbishing and reopening of the railway to passenger and freight services from Ennis in County Clare, the present terminus of the Irish Rail passenger service from Dublin via Limerick, and lying on the route of the Western Rail Corridor, northwards to Athenry and Galway. From there the railway is to re-open, again in phases, to Tuam and on to Claremorris in County Mayo. Communities along these stretches of line now look forward to the return of their trains in the foreseeable future.

Whilst these announcements were to be applauded, and were well received in principle, the prime objective of and momentum for the campaign has been, and firmly remains, the reopening of the whole Western Rail Corridor in its entirety as a complete "joined up" railway all the way to Sligo.

Sadly, the reopening of the northern "Burma Road" stretch has not been given a very high profile in "Transport 21" and whilst there is acknowledgment that the line should be completed through to Sligo the proposed timescale for this suggests that the reopening has been put on "the long finger" (some might say on a digit of similar length to this stretch of the railway!). However, campaigners will be very vigilant to ensure that once Claremorris is reached, there will be no undue delay on the part of the powers that be in completing the reopening of the line all the way to Sligo. There is some optimism that this will be completed sooner rather than later, given its strategic position in relation to Knock Airport and certain "decentralised" Government departments due to be relocated to this part of County Mayo (unions and other factors permitting!).

It is certainly not all "doom and gloom" for this last section of the "Corridor", however, in that a promise by the Department of Rural Affairs here, headed up by Minister Eamon O'Cuiv (and due to "decentralise" here), to take action to protect the route of the "Burma Road" for future reopening is in the throes of being fulfilled. For the past number of weeks and working south from Collooney, CIE, the state transport authority, has been clearing the line of undergrowth, bushes, trees and shrubbery, rails are reappearing, and station areas have been or are being cleaned up. By the end of March this work should be completed through to Claremorris. Fences and gates along the line are being mended and reinstated, and already the line is taking on the appearance of a real railway again.

As a result of the this clearance work my own local Swinford Station has arisen like a veritable phoenix from 40 years of dense encroaching undergrowth and invading shrubbery and, with an air of hushed expectancy, now awaits the return of its trains.

In fact, standing, in the descending dusk of a west of Ireland spring evening, on the newly exposed rails lying between the well constructed stone platforms of Swinford Station, with still extant station house, stone water tower and brick built signal cabin, and peering firstly northwards into the distance towards Sligo and then, turning around, southwards towards Claremorris, it would not be hard to imagine, nay it would not be surprising to see, in my moment of nostalgia, a train reappearing and heading towards the station, as if the intervening closure period of 40 years had only been the mere blink of an eye or, perhaps, just a bad dream from which I had just awoken to discover that our station and its trains had not gone away after all. A station once again (apologies to the Wolfe Tones for the play on words!).

Michael Fox © March 2006