Today we have Ian McDermott, who is a member of the Book Club - he also loves Irish traditional music and folk. He frequently attends the concerts we put on at the Irish Centre. He is a great train enthusiast and spends many happy hours on the railways of Ireland.
Outside Dublin, Ireland is not densely populated and so is not best suited for the economics of railways. The country once had a fairly extensive rail system but this was decimated during the economic crises of the 1960s and 70s. Basically what's left falls into 3 categories: Long Distance, Commuter and Freight.
In the North there are commuter services into Belfast from Bangor, Portadown, Larne and Ballymena. The only Long Distance trains go to Derry or Dublin. There is virtually no freight carried in the North.
In the South, because of the astronomical cost of houses in Dublin commuters travel greater distances often on Long Distance trains. Commuter Trains run from Drogheda, Port Laoise and Maynooth. There is also the electrified Dart system which runs down the Coast from Malahide/Howth to Bray/Greystones. There are also some commuter services into Cork from Cobh, Mallow or Middleton and limited services into Limerick from Nenagh and Ennis.
Main Line trains radiate from Dublin to Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Tralee, Limerick, Galway, Mayo. Sligo and of course Belfast. An oddity, still hanging, on is the service from Waterford to Limerick Junction.
Container Trains run from Dublin Port to Ballina. Mineral ore is taken from near Navan to Dublin Port and timber is carried from Ballina to Waterford.
Fares are reasonable, cheap Advance Tickets are available like in Britain. The Trains are modern, mainly multiple units. The "Enterprise" to Belfast is locomotive hauled as are some Cork Trains.
Competition to the Railways comes from the motorways which have spread over Ireland during the last 20 years. Unlike Britain there is hardly any congestion apart from the M50 round Dublin. So end to end car journeys can be quicker than by train. That is not to say that the trains are slow but simply because they have to serve intermediate stations so there are no 70 or 80 mile stretches of 100 mph running.
But the Trains are well patronised, partly because all residents over 67 (I think) get free public transport in the Republic.
The Route taken when railways were first constructed was often dictated by Land owners who didn't fancy noisy steam trains passing by and disturbing the tranquillity of their demesne. Consequently many stations are away from town centres, Galway being an exception. Derry and Waterford Stations are a distance from the Centre over the other side of their respective rivers. Heuston Station Dublin is a mile away from the action and the inappropriately named Belfast Central has recently been renamed Lanyon Place which is more accurate.
There is hardly anything in Ireland that qualifies as a scenic railway, nothing to compare with Switzerland or Austria or more locally the Highlands of Scotland. The coastal stretch from Bray to Greystones and the run past Castlerock on the North Atlantic Coast have been shown on television in recent times. In Ireland the centre is flat so the scenery is pastoral not spectacular. The line to Galway passes over miles of peat bog a little like La Mancha in Spain.
What you get from the train in Ireland are views of fields, trees, grazing animals, the real Ireland, not all the bungalows and haciendas that litter the landscape all over the roads and byways which should never have been allowed to be built.
I spent much of my early childhood watching trains and collecting numbers. I don't imagine many 10/11 year olds nowadays would even know how to find their way to Crewe, Chester, Warrington or Preston. It’s a sort of disease that you never shake off - that's the Trainspotting.
My interest in Irish Railways began when I joined the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland. This highly respected organisation originated in 1967 when a few enthusiasts joined together to preserve a steam engine as they were being phased out. From little acorns the Society has grown to own 10 locomotives, several rakes of coaches, a museum and an engineering facility. It has its headquarters in Whitehead, just outside of Belfast and a depot at Connolly Station Dublin. The Society is so well thought of that it is permitted to run steam or diesel excursions all over Ireland using its own engines and coaches. These trains have made guest appearances in films such as "Michael Collins" and "The Great Train Robbery" which was partly filmed in Pearse Station as well as in the television series, "The Irish RM"
I have travelled for over 20 years on their Weekend Tour when they travel from Dublin to one of the far flung Towns of the Republic - sadly not to be this year. I was fortunate enough to have travelled before the Celtic Tiger invigorated the Railway with more services all going faster, and before Health and Safety was invented. Those halcyon, bygone days when the steam train would trundle along to a station to top up with water, where the photographers would wander around the tracks to get the" right" picture and the non-photographers would adjourn to the nearest hostelry (despite there being a bar on the train, it was a ritual), those were the days.
The train crew would be in the bar and would advise when it was ready to move on. Either being hard of hearing or just happy to stay where we were, my friends and I were left behind in Mullingar, Claremorris and Ballymena. That's on different tours.
Nowadays it is a case of the steam train getting in the way of the express and so the steam train is shunted into a siding from which you can’t alight while you wait for the express to go thundering past.
So the images of Irish railways created in films like "The Quiet Man" or the song by Percy French "Are You right there Michael" are gone forever - if they really existed.