The railway that went the wrong way
Caledonian train on Portpatrick railway circa 1880 near Gatehouse station- 6 miles from the town it served
The railway that went the wrong way
The British and Irish Grand Junction Railway was proposed in April 1856 and approved by Parliament in August 1857 as the Portpatrick Railway. But as early as August 1856 it was argued that Cairnryan near Stranraer not Portpatrick should be the line’s terminus. It was also argued between 1856 and 1858 that the line should be routed via Gatehouse and Kirkcudbright.
Neither of these proposals were accepted and the railway was built to a port only suitable for sailing ships following the route of a stage coach road surveyed by Thomas Telford in 1809. By 1864, only two years after the line reached Portpatrick, the railway was running at a loss. It was leased to the Caledonian Railway which developed Stranraer as a successful ferry port.
Stranraer’s success was based on long distance traffic but the railway failed to stimulate the local economy. In 1851, the population of Galloway was 86 510. By 1961 it had fallen to 57 984. The lack of local traffic on the railway that went the wrong way made its closure in 1965 almost inevitable. Note: a petition for re-opening can be signed here
In June 1965, the railway between Dumfries and Stranraer and a branch line from Castle Douglas to Kirkcudbright were closed. A freight only branch from Newton Stewart to Wigtown and Whithorn had been closed the year before.
The closure of these lines had been proposed in the 1963 report ‘The Reshaping of British Railways’ by Dr Richard Beeching. Beeching’s argument was that competition from the road network since 1952 meant that large parts of Britain’s Victorian railway network were no longer economically viable.
|From 'The Reshaping of British Railways, 1963|
Pressure from businessmen and politicians in Northern Ireland kept the line from Ayr to Stranraer open for overnight/sleeper services to and from London. This service was seen as vital for Northern Ireland in the days before air travel became the preferred option.
The early use of roll-on/ roll-off vehicle ferries on the Stranraer/Larne route, despite the tragic loss of the Princess Victoria in 1953 (built in 1947), helped to draw traffic away from the railway and onto the A 75 and A 77 roads. Unfortunately this exacerbated a problem which had been identified even before the railway was built.
The Short-Sea Crossing
The Portpatrick Railway, as the company which built the line from Castle Douglas to Stranraer and Portpatrick was called was planned as a strategic route to take advantage of the 21 mile short-sea crossing from Portpatrick to Donaghadee in Ireland. From 1662 until 1849, Portpatrick had been the port used by the Royal Mail service to Ireland. By 1838, 8000 to 10 000 letters per day were passing through Portpatrick. Scottish mail was carried by daily by coach from Glasgow and the English mails by coach from Dumfries.
But in 1850 the railway network reached Holyhead in Wales with a 22 hour steamer service to Kingstown ( Dún Laoghaire) for Dublin. This then became the preferred Royal Mail route to Ireland and the Portpatrick- Donaghadee route was dropped.
But in 1856, the UK Treasury hinted that if Portpatrick and Donaghadee were to be connected to the British and Irish rail networks, then they would once more become the main Royal Mail ports for the Irish mail service.
The Short Railway Route
The Portpatrick Railway was planned to achieve this financially lucrative objective. Its main promoters, lord Dalrymple, heir to the earl of Stair and William Dunbar of Mochrum, had little interest in local traffic and so civil engineer Benjamin Blythe came up with the shortest possible route between Castle Douglas and Portpatrick.
The original plan involved a direct line from Glenluce to Portpatrick, with Stranraer served by a freight branch but this was overturned at a meeting of shareholders held in Newtown Stewart in September 1856 (H Thorne, ‘Rails to Portpatrick’, 1976, p.4).
The original route of the railway between Glenluce and Portpatrick
would have followed the 'New Intended Road' shown on this 1821 map.
Unfortunately, the Portpatrick company refused to budge on another part of Benjamin Blyth’s proposed route. This took the railway north from Castle Douglas to Parton and then west through the Galloway hills to Creetown. An alternative route, which would have taken the railway via Gatehouse of Fleet to Creetown was rejected in 1857. A similar route which would have taken in Kirkcudbright as well was rejected in 1858.
The sensible argument that the alternative route would increase local traffic on the route and make it more financially viable were loftily dismissed on the grounds that the Portpatrick was a national rather than a local railway.
|Alternative route as proposed 1856|
|Dumfries and Galloway Standard and Advertiser|
21 January 1857. Part of surveyors report on alternative route.
|Alternative route as proposed and rejected in 1858|
The line from Castle Douglas to Stranraer was opened in 1861 at a cost of £290 000. Although work had begun on the last 7 miles to Portpatrick in 1858, the work was not completed until 1862, at a cost of £70 000. The delay was due to the government, having spent £500 000 on improvements to Portpatrick harbour, being unwilling to commit to further work.
In 1864, despite the railway reaching Portpatrick and Donaghadee also having a rail link, the Postmaster General informed the Treasury that the Holyhead route would keep the Royal Mail contract ‘for the foreseeable future’. (MacHaffie, ‘Portpatrick to Donghadee’, 2001p. 65)
The Portpatrick company had gambled -and lost. In 1864, the Portpatrick Railway leased its track and rolling stock to the Caledonia Railway for 21 years. In 1868 the Portpatrick harbour branch was closed. Under Caledonia management, Stranraer was developed as a successful ferry port. When the lease expired in 1885, the Portpatrick was taken over by a partnership of the Caledonian, Glasgow and South Western, London and North Western and Midland railway companies. In 1923 the London Midland and Scottish railway absorbed the Portpatrick and other railways in south-west Scotland. After nationalisation in 1948, British Railways took over until closure in 1965.
The history of the Dumfries to Stranraer line and its branches has been the subject of three books:
David Smith ‘The Little Railways of South-West Scotland’ (1967)
H D Thorne ‘Rails to Portpatrick’ (1976)
C E J Fryer ‘The Portpatrick and Wigtownshire Railways’ (1991).
Fraser G MacHaffie ‘Portpatrick to Donaghadee -The Original Short Sea Crossing’ (2001) provides vital background information missing from the railway focused books.
The Cairnryan Railway?
Today, both P & O and Stena ferries are based at Cairnryan. Remarkably,
MacHaffie reveals that even as the Portpatrick Railway company was being formed in the summer of 1856, the steamer Semaphore arrived at Cairnryan on 11 August 1856 with members of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners and leading Belfast businessmen. This group met members of the railway company committee and suggested to them that Cairnryan should become the departure point for Belfast and the proposed railway’s destination. The railway company replied that the line to Portpatrick had to be built first before other possibilities could be explored. (MacHaffie, p. 62)
MacHaffie also describes successive, failed, attempts to improve the harbour at Portpatrick, from John Smeaton’s plans drawn up in 1768 to Thomas Telford’s proposals in 1809 and John Rennie’s more detailed plan drawn up in 1819.
Beginning in 1821, work on Rennie’s plan continued until 1836, but after storm damage in 1839, it was left unfinished. As MacHaffie notes
It is doubtful if Portpatrick Harbour, even if completed could have done the job. It was designed with sailing ships in mind and we must question John Rennie’s claims, as late as 1842, that the original plans required no modification to accommodate steamships. (p. 31)Rennie made the claims at Parliamentary Select Committee hearing where Captain George Evans of the Royal Navy said attempts to make the harbour safe were ‘a useless expense, just the same as throwing the money in the sea’.
By 1856, it should have been clear to lord Dalrymple, William Dunbar and others involved in promoting the Portpatrick Railway that Stranraer or Cairnryan were the future and Portpatrick was the past.
Telford’s Shortest Road
Unfortunately their focus on the past carried over into the route chosen for the railway. In 1809, as well as making recommendations for the improvement of Portpatrick harbour, Thomas Telford also sketched out the route of a road from Gretna Portpatrick which would be 15 miles shorter than the existing Old Miltary Road, constructed in 1764/5. In 1811, John Rennie made a more detailed survey of part of Telford’s proposed road. In 1821, John Ainslie showed the route of the proposed road on his map of Southern Scotland. The map can be seen here.
Ainslie’s map shows the proposed road cutting across the head of Luce Bay directly from Glenluce to Portpatrick. It also shows the road running inland from Creetown towards Parton and on to the pick up the route of the present day A 75 at Auchenreoch Loch.
As discussed above, Thorne (1976, p.4) noted, the original route of the Portpatrick Railway would also have run direct from Glenluce to Portpatrick, with Stranraer served by a branch line. But what neither Thorne nor Smith and Fryer realised in their accounts of the Portpatrick Railway was that the Creetown to Parton section of the route also followed the Telford/Rennie road as shown by Ainslie.
|'Intended Road' John Ainslie, 1821|
|Route of railway as built 1861|
This is Rennie’s 1811 description of the road route, which precisely matches the Portpatrick Railway route.
The new Road is proposed to depart from the Road leading from Newton Stewart to Cree Town about three quarters of a mile west of the latter place, and from thence it proceeds up the vale of the Money Pool Burn to Drumore. The highest part of the ground in this district is about 462 feet above the Newton, Stewart Road, and is about six miles distant from it the rise is very regular, and in no place will it be greater than one foot in 35 ; but generally the rise is not half of that quantity.
A new Road is now making in this direction, and indeed a great part of it has already been made. It has however been badly laid out, and will require to be altered in several places.
From this summit, the Road descends gently to Drumore east of which it crosses the great Fleet River, and then ascends up a vale to the ridge of high ground between thence and the little Fleet, the highest part of which is 428 feet, and no part is the rise more than one in 39. From the Little Fleet, the line of Road runs to Loch Skerrow and skirting the south side of that Loch, it descends gradually to Stroan Loch: the steepest part is about one in 38.
The line of Road must necessarily cross the Dee, near the place where it comes out of the Loch, and in this place a Bridge will be required, where the Dee is small; and Mr. Morrison informs me that the situation is favourable. From this place, Mr. Morrison has surveyed two lines, the one to pass down the Vale of the Dee and cross Loch Kenn at the Boat or Ferry of Roan; the other, to recross the Dee at Newbridge, and pass down the South side of the Vale to Loup Eye, and there to cross Loch Kenn.
At the former place the water of Loch Kenn is deep, but the channel is much narrower than at Loup Eye : it cannot be conveniently Crossed, unless by a Bridge of one Arch, which will require to be 180 feet span; this can easily be done economically by a cast-iron arch, and even with such an arch the expense will be great, amounting, as per annexed Estimate, to £ 14,201. This is far beyond what I expected it would cost; but much of the expense arises from the badness of the foundations, all of which will require to be piled…
So when E and B Blyth of Edinburgh were drawing up their plans for the Portpatrick Railway between June and September 1856 they used Ainslie’s 1821 map and simply copied from it, making the new railway follow the route of a road first proposed 49 years earlier by Thomas Telford.
What might have been
If the opponents of the Portpatrick Railway’s route had known this, it would have strengthen their case for taking the railway via Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse to Creetown rather than by Crossmichael, Parton and the Galloway hills. Furthermore if Stranraer / Cairnryan not Portpatrick had been chosen as the terminus of the route the overall cost of the new railway would have been dramatically reduced.
A Lochryan Railway, routed via Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse as well as Dalbeattie and Castle Douglas, would have placed the most populous and prosperous parts of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright on a main line of communication between England and Ireland. This would have added extra income from local traffic to the railway and promoted the growth Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse.
Potentially then, by the 1960s, the economic and social value of the railway would have been significant enough for it to successfully resist the sharp edge of Dr Beeching’s axe.