NI 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 Not part of National Rail
Founded 1967
Predecessor Ulster Transport Authority
Parent company NITHCo (Translink)
Gauge 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in) Irish gauge

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 four publicly owned train operators in the United Kingdom, the others being Network Rail, Direct Rail Services and LNER. 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, nor does it use Standard Gauge, instead using Irish Gauge in common with the rest of Ireland. Also, 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; proposals have been made, but allowances would have to be made for the different rail gauge (standard gauge) in use in Britain and Ireland (Irish gauge).


From the early 20th century until 1948, the three main railway companies in Northern Ireland were the Great Northern Railway Ireland (GNRI), which had around one half of its network north of the border; the Northern Counties Committee (NCC), owned by the Midland Railway of England and later the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS); and the small Belfast and County Down Railway (BCDR). The Transport Act (Northern Ireland) 1948 created the Ulster Transport Authority (UTA), which took over the BCDR later that year, followed by the NCC in 1949 as a result of the Ireland Act 1949. In 1958, the GNRI was dissolved and its lines north of the border were also taken over by the UTA. Under the UTA's management, the railway network of Northern Ireland underwent substantial reduction in size, shrinking from 900 miles (1,450 km) to 225 miles (362 km). The UTA was split into rail and road operations in 1967, and the rail operations were taken over by the present company Northern Ireland Railways (NIR).[1]

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 British Rail Engineering Limited (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 Mark 2 design with some trailer cars rebuilt from hauled stock. The power cars were powered by an English Electric 4SRKT engine, nicknamed 'Thumpers' due to their characteristic sound, and had two English Electric 538 traction motors. These entered service on the suburban lines around Belfast, becoming a stalwart on the whole network. They remained in service until 2012, latterly 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 use it on the Lisburn-Antrim line to prevent it from being closed. This proposal failed, again because of the limited capacity.[2]

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

During the eighties it was apparent that additional trains would be needed. BREL built nine 450 Class sets on former Mark 1 underframes between 1985 and 1987. The power cars had 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 had two English Electric 538 traction motors. The sets were three-car diesel-electric multiple units, based on a more modern British design, with air-operated sliding doors. They were withdrawn from service in 2012 and replaced by new 4000 Class diesel multiple units.

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 Class 3000 diesel multiple units from CAF of Spain in an £80m order.[3] The final unit, 3023, arrived in Belfast Harbour on Monday 18 July 2005.[4] All units had entered service by 24 September 2005. They operate principally between Bangor, Portadown and Londonderry and Belfast. Between 2011 and 2012, additional CAF-built diesel multiple units of the 4000 class were introduced.


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.[5]

NIR carried 13.4 million passengers in 2014–15 (up from 10.4 million in 2010–11), representing 417 million passenger-km and earning £43.6 million in ticket sales.[6]

Rolling stock

Current fleet

Class Image Type Top speed Number Routes operated Built
 mph   km/h 
Passenger fleet
Class 3000 Diesel Multiple Unit 90 145 23 BelfastLondonderry
Class 4000 Diesel Multiple Unit 90 145 20 BelfastLarne
Infrastructure fleet
Class 111 Diesel Locomotive 90 145 3 Infrastructure duties 1980–1984
MPV Diesel Multiple Unit 62 100 1 Sandite duties 2016

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 English operatorMidland Mainline to use for Enterprise, but these entered service with their intended operator. They would have required significant modification to enable NIR to use them, including conversion from standard gauge to Irish gauge.[7]

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 appointed in early 2009. Work on the new trains began shortly thereafter with the units entering service from 2011 onwards.[8] In March 2009 it was announced that CAF had been selected to build the new fleet, named Class 4000.[9] The first units were delivered in March 2011, with entry into service in September 2011[10]

NIR retained one Class 80 unit (three power cars and two driving trailers) as its sandite train during the 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 leaf fall seasons. It was planned that a Class 450 unit was to be used for this role.[11] However, in 2015, Translink awarded a contract to Windhoff Bahn AG to procure a new double ended multi-purpose vehicle to undertake sandite and high-pressure water spraying, as well as weed killing operations.[12]

Past fleet

 Class   Image   Type   Built   Withdrawn   Notes 
Class WT Steam locomotive 1946–1950 1969–1971 2-6-4 tank engines nicknamed "Jeeps" due to their general purpose traffic ability.

Used for Spoil trains from Magheramorne to shores of Belfast Lough as well as shunting, passenger and freight.

Arguably the last steam locomotives in mainline operation in the British Isles.

AEC Diesel multiple unit 1948–1950 1972 10 Inherited from the UTA.
BUT Diesel multiple unit 1956–1958 1975 – 1980 Nine vehicles converted to hauled stock over the 1970s, these lasted until 1980.
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 Enterprise.
70 Class Diesel Multiple Unit 1966–1968 1985–1986 Passenger DEMU. Engines recovered for use in 450 Class units. One intermediate is preserved at the Downpatrick & County Down Railway. One driving trailer was also preserved was destroyed
80 Class Diesel Multiple Unit 1974–1979 2011–2017 Passenger DEMU affectionately nicknamed 'Thumpers'.

Operated on all routes. Also used for Sandite until 2017.

101 Class Diesel locomotive 1970 1989 Intended for loco hauled Enterprise services.
104 Class Diesel locomotive 1956–1957 1993 Originally operated under CIÉ; six transferred to NIR in 1986.
450 Class Diesel Multiple Unit 1985–1987 2011–2012 Passenger DEMU nicknamed the Castle Class by enthusiasts.

Power cars named after Northern Ireland castles.

Initially designed for commuter or branch line traffic but could be found over the entire network.

One example is preserved on the Downpatrick & County Down Railway.

RB3 Diesel Railcar 1980 1990 Prototype built for British Rail; transferred to NIR in 1983. Preserved at the Downpatrick and County Down Railway.
Class 1 Diesel locomotive 1969 1989 Shunters. Since withdrawal two have been rebuilt for work in Sri Lanka; one is in storage in Wales.


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,[13] 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, Knockmore, 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

A debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on Monday 14 May 2007[17] 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.[18]

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.[19]

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.

Translink have plans to introduce a new ticketing system in 2018 similar to the system utilised by Irish Rail. This includes the introduction of ticket vending machines, allowing customers to purchase tickets via an electronic interface at the station (as opposed to the current system in which customers must pay staff for the ticket, who in turn print the customer's ticket for them), a 'smart card' 'tap on, tap off' system similar to the Leap Card and contactless payments.[20]


The rail network is focused on Greater Belfast. Both the Bangor and Larne lines have been re-laid in recent years, enabling timetable improvements to be delivered.[21] The only significant "inter-city" routes are the main line between Belfast and Dublin, which covers services to Newry; and the Belfast-Derry 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 2hr4m[22] while the bus takes an 1hr50m.[23] 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 Derry but for the wider cross-border region.[24]

On Wednesday 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 total cost was £64 million, and began in 2011, lasting five years. Prior to the major relaying of the Coleraine-Londonderry section, £12 million was spent on improving the section between Ballymena and Coleraine.[25] This saw the stretch between Ballymena and Coleraine closed completely for four months, with a replacement bus service. Trains continued to run between Londonderry, Coleraine and Portrush, with a small fleet stabled at Coleraine[26] – four trains were stabled instead of the three previously reported. Once the project was completed in 2016, 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.[27] 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.[19] This will improve NIR's services and allow an hourly Enterprise service to Dublin.[21]

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.[28]

As part of NIR's plans for its new rolling stock, it has built 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.[29]

Further plans are afoot to double the track from Monkstown to Templepatrick, to further increase capacity on the Londonderry line.

Portadown to Armagh

In 2013, the then Minister for Regional Development, Danny Kennedy, indicated that a restoration of the route between Portadown and Armagh was under active consideration in the long term, pointing out the commercial opportunities for the city of Armagh and its hinterland to be reconnected to the railway network.[30]

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.[31] The airport has marked the building of a new station in its list of future plans,[32] while EasyJet, which is the largest operator into Belfast International, have been strong in advocating an airport rail link.[33] 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.[34] 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 was also included in a wider study of the development of the Northern Rail Corridor published at the end of 2009[35]

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.[36] 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.[37][38] 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.[39]

There have also been calls, as part of the wider upgrade of the rail route to Londonderry, 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.[40]

Rolling stock

Although the introduction of the Class 3000 trains was 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 was retained, notably the entire Class 450 on the Belfast-Larne route. To enable NIR to maintain its levels of service, it upgraded 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 saw them through to their withdrawal in 2012. Three four-car Class 80 units were refurbished and a number of locomotives and coaches were converted to push-pull operation with the addition of the DBSO obtained from 'one', to ensure that passenger rolling stock levels were maintained up to the introduction of new rolling stock in 2011 and 2012.[41]

One of the major projects instigated by Translink was "New Trains Two" (formerly "New Trains 2010"), which saw 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 were withdrawn in 2012. However, it was determined that to deliver improved frequency of service on the network the size of NIR's fleet had to be increased, and with that must come associated infrastructure improvements.[16] The announcement of the investment programme confirmed "New Trains 2010", which procured 20 new trains to both replace the remaining Class 80 and Class 450 units and provide additional capacity.[19] The specification given by the DRD stated that the new trains are to provide both inner and outer suburban commuter services and express services between Belfast and Dublin.[42] The Class 4000 fleet entered service on Thursday 29 September 2011.[8] 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.[43]

See also


  1. Hollingsworth, Brian (1984). Railways of the World. W.H Smith & Son Limited. p. 79. ISBN 0 86124 023 5.
  2. "Railbus to Drive out of Retirement in Downpatrick". 30 March 2001. Archived from the original on 6 March 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  3. "New trains make first journey". BBC News. 24 November 2004. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  4. Translink Press Release: Last New Train lands at Belfast Harbour Archived 3 June 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. Translink. "Monitoring Results - Translink".
  6. "NI Railway Stats".
  7. "NIR News 157". 23 August 2005. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  8. 1 2 "Railway line to get new trains". BBC News. 6 February 2008. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  9. "Contract signed on trains for NI". BBC News. 25 March 2009. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  10. C4Ks start running to Larne – Railway Gazette, 04/10/11
  11. "Journal 183 NEWS TRANSLINK – NORTHERN IRELAND RAILWAYS". IRRS. 4 July 2014. Retrieved 26 April 2015.
  12. "Supply Contract – United Kingdom-Belfast: Railway and tramway locomotives and rolling stock and associated parts 2015/S 078-138917". Tenders Electronic Daily. Official Journal of the EU. 22 April 2015. Retrieved 20 July 2015.
  13. Antrim – Bleach Green: Rebirth of a Railway Line Archived 25 June 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
  14. Ulster rail expansion needed Archived 17 January 2016 at the Wayback Machine. – Railwatch, 08/2000
  15. An 'enterprising' future for Northern Ireland. Archived 16 June 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
  16. 1 2 Core Programme: Better Rail Services Archived 6 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  17. "Northern Ireland Assembly: Development of the Rail Network". 14 May 2007. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  18. Rail21: Protection of the Former Railway Trackbed from Kingsbog to Ballyclare Archived 29 February 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  19. 1 2 3 "Regional Development Minister welcomes draft Budget allocations". 25 October 2007. Archived from the original on 20 May 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  20. Translink. "Translink Future Ticketing System - Translink".
  21. 1 2 "Northern Corridor Railways Group: Northern Corridor Railway Renaissance" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 August 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  22. "{title}" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 March 2017. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
  23. "Ships and boats and trains". 15 June 2007. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  24. New Intercity train fleet starts on fastest-growing route
  25. McKimm, Mike (19 February 2009). "Downsized rail network 'speedier'". BBC News. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  26. "Open letter to media from Conor Murphy on Londonderry railway line". 21 November 2007. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  27. "North West railway study announced". 26 May 2008. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  28. Ferris, Cyril (2009). "Enterprise moving to Great Victoria Street?". Today's Railways (97): 37.
  29. "Kennedy has hopes for Armagh line restoration – Portadown Times". Retrieved 21 August 2013.
  30. "Fresh call for airport rail link". BBC News. 15 August 2007. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  31. "Belfast International Airport Master Plan". 17 August 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  32. Smith, Colletta (19 February 2008). "Disused track 1 mile from airport". BBC News. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  33. "Northern Ireland Assembly: Antrim to Knockmore Railway Line". Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  34. "NIR News 170". Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  35. BMAP Transport Proposals
  36. Cassidy, Martin (8 April 2008). "City to get rapid transit network". BBC News. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  37. "'No light rail system for city'". BBC News. 8 April 2008. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  38. Rail 21: New Railway Station at Tillysburn Archived 20 June 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
  39. "Northern Ireland Assembly: Derry/Londonderry to Belfast Rail Service". 13 October 2008. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  40. "NIR News 164". Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  41. "NIR News 165". 31 March 2008. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  42. "Tender Details for NIR Class 4000". Retrieved 4 April 2016.

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