Railway line emerges from Lissummon Tunnel and dives under a bridge

A forgotten engineering treasure hidden in the countryside between Armagh and Newry could be the centrepiece of an amazing new greenway. Exploring the Lissummon Tunnel above the Newry Canal with the Mourne Mountains as a backdrop offers a wonderful selling point on a 33km traffic-free pathway – repurposing an abandoned railway route steeped in a rich history, both tragic and inspirational.

The Newry and Armagh Railway

Originally intended as part of a 72 mile railway to Enniskillen, early financial woes and mismanagement led to the curtailed route of the Newry and Armagh Railway opening in 1864.

When you mention railways in Newry today you think of the Northern Ireland Railways station perched high on the hill on the Dublin-Belfast main line. Wind the clock back over a century that was called “Bessbrook Station” and Newry’s main railway station was in Edward Street.

By Railway Clearing House (Railway Junction Diagram) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From here it was possible to travel south towards Greenore or Warrenpoint and north towards Belfast and Armagh. Edward Street Station was also the terminus for the Bessbrook and Newry Tramway which ran close to the railway for about half of its three-mile length before winding under the iconic Craigmore Viaduct towards Bessbrook.

The route of the railway, travelling north from Newry, rose up towards Goraghwood in parallel with the Dublin-Belfast main line. After Goraghwood Station (no longer in existence) the Newry and Armagh Line crossed over and continued climbing above Jerretspass.

Dublin to Belfast ‘Enterprise’ train seen from former Newry & Armagh Railway bridge

Turning away from the main line course along the Newry Canal, the line tunnelled under the nearby hills before heading north through Markethill, Hamiltownsbawn and turned west into Armagh itself.

The line operated until 1933 when the Armagh – Markethill section closed. Goods operations between Markethill and Newry until 1957 before the line closed completely in 1965.

In the years since the railway link was cut, Newry and Armagh have grown from county towns into cities – but the old railway, and the Lissummon Tunnel, have fallen out of memory.

The Lissummon Tunnel

The Lissummon Tunnel lies quietly in the countryside slowly decaying – a relic of an age of Irish engineering excellence drifting from memory. It’s dead straight and exactly one yard short of a mile at 1,759 yards, making it Ireland’s longest railway tunnel.

How are your nerves?

Standing at the (more easily accessed) southern entrance, the northern side appears as a pin prick of light through the murky darkness.

The recently opened Waterford Greenway included the conversion of the quarter-mile long Ballyvoyle Tunnel, including atmospheric lighting in the tunnel refuges which could be replicated in the Lissummon Tunnel.

The history of the railway and tunnel construction, as told by John Campbell of the Pontzpass and District Local History Club, is fascinating and worth a read – as this contemporary news report shows:

“Up to going to press we did not learn if any serious fighting had taken place today at the [Lissummon] tunnel. The report in town today was that a body of men numbering something about 300 strong, armed with guns, pikes, etc., had again today made their appearance in the vicinity of the works, determined, so says rumour, to be revenged on the men who had driven the English workmen from the place.”
The Newry and Armagh Railway and Lissummon Tunnel

Southern entrance to the tunnel, accessible (with difficulty and permission) today

The Lissummon Tunnel is a unique place that we should be inviting the world to explore as we continue towards our government’s 25 year goal of building a network of greenways across the country. The countryside as you emerge from the southern entrance is spectacular.

Mournes, Newry Canal, old railway bridge and the Lissummon Tunnel off to the right

Work would be required to assess the structural integrity and to alleviate the significant water seepage in the central section, but a fully functioning tunnel would be worth the effort.

Original railway sleepers visible near the northern entrance to the Lissummon Tunnel

There is actually a sister structure to the Lissummon Tunnel just 2.6km up the line towards Armagh. Across Loughgilly Bog the line hits the 600 yard long Loughgilly Tunnel with its haunting entrance.

Creepy creepers creeping at Loughgilly Tunnel

This gives the potential greenway plan an echo of the Bath Two Tunnels Greenway project.

Greenway plan overview

Armagh and Newry offers an axis of two cities with potential for both resident active travel and for welcoming significant numbers of visitors to stay and explore a greenway. The main population centres on the greenway route are:

  • Armagh (15,000)
  • Hamiltonsbawn (1,000)
  • Markethill (1,600)
  • Newry (27,000)


The Department for Infrastructure has put a basic per-mile estimate on a greenway project at £4.2million. Two fully refurbished tunnels at Lissummon and Loughgilly would likely push the total project over the £5m mark.

Between Newry and Jerretspass the old railway line runs in close proximity to today’s Newry Canal Towpath, meaning a link-up or alternative pathway is possible at some point, should land issues or cost become a major barrier.

Beyond Newry work is ongoing to link up with the Carlingford to Omeath Greenway which may even form part a future Great Eastern Greenway all the way to Dublin.

Hidden bridge at Tyrones Ditches just north of the Lissummon Tunnel

On the northern side of the two tunnels the old line passes the site of Loughgilly Station. Here another former tramway connected to an industrial hub three miles to the south at Glenanne. This line carried passengers, coal to the mill and finished linen products back up to the railway line for transport to market – the only surviving picture is fascinating.

Embankment stretching out across Loughgilly Bog on approach to the Loughgilly Tunnel

The lifting of the railway provided an excellent foundation for the A28 Gosford Road which follows the track bed for almost a mile and a half. The line becomes distinct again crossing the Bessbrook Road and on towards Markethill.

Line (middle distance) approaching Markethill

The station building in Markethill still stands, converted into a private dwelling. There is ample space to develop an excellent urban greenway through the town – something less functional than a rural greenway and perhaps more poetic?

Looking down towards the site of the old Markethill Station

On the north side of Markethill the line is visible however a diversion towards Gosford Forest Park could be beneficial. Having the strategic greenway network within touching distance of outdoor activities and camping would be attractive to locals and overseas travellers.

Track bed now used as an access road near Hamiltownsbawn

The line continues north rounding, but not quite entering, the settlement of Hamiltonsbawn. Finding a good access spur would be important to drive passing greenway users towards local businesses.

The line then turns west towards Armagh City. At the north-east edge of the city sprawl this potential greenway connection across to St Luke’s Hospital and the old railway station complex behind Armagh Cathedral would have serious benefits to local residents.

Line straight ahead towards St Luke’s Hospital, as seen from Drumman Heights

As with any greenway project, the exact route and priorities will be determined by the hard work of local councils – in this case a partnership between Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council – and the landowners and stakeholders along the route. The economic benefits are being shown time and again in other parts of the island.

If the Lissummon Greenway can find its way between the cities of Newry and Armagh, there is potential for an excellent triangle route including Portadown – utilising the existing Newry Canal Towpath and another expected greenway linking Armagh and Portadown.

This important inter-urban greenway can drive employment, tourism an active travel in settlements which have been relatively quiet since the days of the permanent way – and the Lissummon Tunnel is the ace up the sleeve.


History – Armagh rail disaster

The section of railway between Armagh and Hamiltownsbawn is the site of a tragedy that changed railway safety forever. On 12th June 1889 a train packed with 940 people, on an excursion to Warrenpoint organised by the Armagh Methodist Church Sunday School, tried to negotiate a steep incline out of Armagh:

“The steam locomotive was unable to complete the climb and the train stalled. The train crew decided to divide the train and take forward the front portion, leaving the rear portion on the running line. The rear portion was inadequately braked and ran back down the gradient, colliding with a following train.

“Eighty people were killed and 260 injured, about a third of them children. It was the worst rail disaster in the UK in the nineteenth century, and remains Ireland’s worst railway disaster ever. To this day, it is the fourth worst railway accident in the United Kingdom.

“It led directly to various safety measures becoming legal requirements for railways in the United Kingdom.”

Armagh Rail Disaster, Wikipedia contributors

The position of the collision is on the high bank as the Portadown Road enters Armagh. Building a greenway through this point may therefore be a sensitive task. There is scope for an educational resource about this terrible and pivotal moment in local and national history, a worthy addition to the memorial in Armagh City.

History – footage of the former Newry and Armagh Railway

Armagh rail disaster, Goraghwood Station, through Newry Edward Street Station and beyond:

The Newry Canal and (last two minutes) looking at the Goraghwood line:

Trace the old railway with online mapping


Note: almost all of the land traversed by the former railways in Northern Ireland are now in private ownership – this article reflects on the factual position of the former route and potential reuse where possible, but does not imply landowner consent to these ideas.

View from railway bridge at Church Hill Road


As the UK is due to leave the European Union in March 2019, the future shape of agricultural support is being considered by the Department for Agriculture, Environmental and Rural Affairs (DAERA). Northern Ireland Greenways believes that any revised agricultural payments framework should encourage greenway development under access to the countryside aims and the greening of land opportunities.

The single biggest barrier to greenway development in Northern Ireland is land access. When our extensive railway network was closed and lifted in the mid 20th century, most of the land was sold or taken into private ownership. Subsequent development or agricultural use makes certain sections unlikely to be considered for greenway use as things stand. A range of options will need to be explored over the next quarter of a century between landowners and government to realise the 1,000km vision for a world-leading greenway network.

“A network of green corridors will contribute to delivering these benefits whilst building attractive environments and vibrant communities around the centres where we live and work. Greenways can make a huge difference to the daily lives of people by providing the opportunity to enjoy safe and easy access to fresh air and exercise, encouraging more people to commute to work by foot or bicycle, more children to walk or cycle to school, and provide a vital leisure resource for local people and visitors alike.”
Exercise Explore Enjoy: A Strategic Plan for Greenways, DfI

The land access negotiation process can be difficult, as has been seen in route development in parts of the UK and Ireland. Landowners and farmers can see potential greenway paths as problematic, with worries over routes slicing up land holdings, affecting productive potential, and fears of compulsory purchase meaning decisions being imposed upon them.

In Northern Ireland discussions are not that far advanced in most cases, and the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has so far insisted on a system of landowner, neighbour and public consultation as part of early route exploration by local councils.

Consultation on a potential greenway route from Comber to Newtownards, March 2018
Consultation event on a potential greenway route from Comber to Newtownards, March 2018 ©nigreenways

The implications of Brexit on the future of agricultural payments creates an opportunity to reframe the debate on greenways and public access to the countryside.

Some of the criticisms of the current Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payment system include it being too narrowly focused on certain agricultural uses of land, even if it’s not particularly productive or sustainable. Revising the subsidy framework to include the concept of ‘public money for public goods’ can prompt new uses of land to benefit the wider public.

“Active promotion of access to countryside, educational farm visits and biodiverse green space and ensuring the access is healthy, for example ensuring opportunities for beautiful and tranquil experiences, wildlife encounters and physical activity.”
Public health is a public good and should be supported in farming policy, Vicki Hird

This can start with creating a system of payments which reward the creation of new public pathways across private land. This would recognise the need for partnership working between landowners, the local community, councils and government to identify strategic route objectives, standards of design and ongoing operation.

This can not only support the routes identified through the Strategic Plan for Greenways but also be a spur to local communities working to seek new opportunities for active travel infrastructure in their area. Future payments for any greenways created would need to be dependent on the continued access to, and maintenance of, those routes.

There is an industrial heritage aspect of greenway development which can also be recognised in this type of payment framework. Landowners with remnants of our railway past – station platforms and buildings, bridges, tunnels, viaducts and so on – can be rewarded for the conservation and possible regeneration of certain features, protecting and preserving them for future generations.

Neill's Hill Station platform restored by local campaigners
Neill’s Hill Station platform restored by local campaigners along the Comber Greenway in Belfast ©nigreenways

Another way in which greenway development can benefit from a new approach to agricultural payments is in the repurposing of land away from arable and pastoral use to greening such as wild meadows and forestry. Concerns about greenway routes which may divide portions of land could be used as opportunities for landowners to create pockets of woodland, or wild areas which would give a much needed boost to biodiversity and wildlife habitats – and have that work reflected in support payments.

Access to the countryside isn’t just about linear pathways for walking and cycling, but also the quality of engagement with nature and agriculture. Again the future subsidy system should reflect ways in which the public are encouraged to visit and interact with the countryside, such as the creation of open farms, educational opportunities, cafes and visitor experiences, accommodation and outdoor activities. Greenways should be seen as key active travel corridors to enable the public to access these potential activities – and the local employment they will support – creating a beneficial feedback loop to society.

A framework of agricultural payments which recognises greenway development as a key aim of society over the next quarter century, and can reward landowners for work to realise this vision, isn’t a magic wand to wipe away the difficulties and concerns which greenway development can sometimes bring. But it could be an important incentive to work together to create special places and a dense web of easy access to our wonderful countryside, which can draw in visitors from far and wide, and benefit all.

Get involved by emailing your response to the DAERA consultation at NIFutureAgriPolicy@daera-ni.gov.uk by Wednesday 10 October 2018.

You can also use a pro-forma response email (and adapt the text as you need to) on the Nature Matters website.

Read more

DAERA: Northern Ireland Future Agricultural Policy Framework

DAERA: NI Future Agricultural Policy Framework – Stakeholder Engagement (PDF, 990K)

Cycling UK: Get on my land!

Cycling UK: Why post-Brexit agricultural policy is as important for you and your child as it is for farmers

Cycling UK: Agricultural subsidies and why countryside access is a public good

The Programme for Government outcomes which agricultural payment support for access to the countryside, greenways and re-greening can help to deliver:

Indicator 6: Improve mental health
Lead measure: % of population with GHQ12 scores ≥4 (signifying possible mental health problem)

Indicator 23: Improve transport connections for people, goods and services
Lead measure: Average journey time on key economic corridors

Indicator 25: Increase the use of public transport and active travel
Lead measure: % of all journeys which are made by walking/cycling/public transport

Indicator 27: Improve cultural participation
Lead measure: % engaging with arts/cultural activities in the past year

Indicator 29: Increase environmental sustainability
Lead measure: Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Indicator 30: Improve our attractiveness as a destination
Lead measure: Total spend by external visitors

Indicator 31: Increase shared space
Lead measure: % who think leisure centres, parks, libraries and shopping centres in their areas are ‘shared and open’ to both Protestants and Catholics

Indicator 34: Improve the regional balance of economic prosperity through increased employment
Lead measure: Employment rate by geographic area (areas to be defined)

Indicator 37: Improve air quality
Lead measure: Nitrogen dioxide concentration.

Indicator 40: Improve our international reputation
Lead measure: National Brand Index

Indicator 42: Increase quality of life for people with disabilities
Lead measure: Average life satisfaction score of people with disabilities

View from A2 down onto the Holywood Exchange access road


The Sydenham Greenway idea has hit the headlines in the last few months. A public petition was launched by Northern Ireland Greenways to raise awareness of the potential project which gained over 3,000 signatures in a matter of weeks over Easter.

Belfast City Council took notice of the petition and Councillors George Dorrian and John Kyle brought a motion on the greenway plan.

However the time has come to launch phase two of our efforts to ensure the project proceeds. The spark for the petition and latest campaign was the proposed Tillysburn Park and Ride scheme from the Department for Infrastructure (DfI).

Despite bordering the proposed Sydenham Greenway route, and two DfI strategies specifically adopting the Sydenham Greenway as a planned active travel corridor, they omitted this pathway from the Park and Ride scheme. A huge missed opportunity.


Tillysburn Park and RIde plan document ©DfI


However, as there is a public consultation on the Park and Ride scheme, this offers you the opportunity to comment. And in this case, object to the scheme proceeding further unless there is a greenway included in revised plans.

To do this you’ll need to send an email to the Department by 5pm on Wednesday 9th May 2018.

View the Tillysburn Park and Ride consultation documents on the Department for Infrastructure website.

Luckily for you we’ve prepared a handy email template for an objection. This states the main reasons why DfI should have included the Sydenham Greenway in this plan, and wording to make your objection to progress on the scheme unless changes are made. Just cut and paste, and then send to the address below before the deadline.


Feel free to alter and amend the text to suit your own views on the wider scheme. Many people will object to the Park and Ride scheme in itself, others may wish for it to proceed once a greenway route is integrated.



To Department for Infrastructure,

I welcome the opportunity to comment on the Tillysburn Park and Ride consultation.

I wish to formally object to the scheme in the form laid out in the documents published on 12 March 2018.

The Department for Infrastructure is tasked with increasing the levels of active travel in Northern Ireland. As many as nine Draft Progamme for Government Outcomes Framework indicators directly relate to getting more people travelling in an active way and to the creation of safe active travel space such as greenways:


2. Reduce health inequality
3. Increase healthy life expectancy
4. Reduce preventable deaths
6. Improve mental health
23. Improve transport connections for people, goods and services
25. Increase the use of public transport and active travel
29. Increase environmental sustainability
30. Improve our attractiveness as a destination
37. Improve air quality



The Tillysburn Park and Ride scheme borders on the route of the proposed Sydenham Greenway, a traffic-free pathway which would connect the greenways of Belfast to the North Down Coastal Path.

You should know this as the Sydenham Greenway route was adopted in two of your own strategies in the past year and a half:


Exercise Explore Enjoy: A Strategic Plan for Greenways (Nov 2016)

Draft Belfast Bicycle Network (Jan 2017)


That the Department omitted any reference to the greenway in the Tillysburn Park and Ride is of great concern to me. Since you launched your consultation, more than 3,000 people have signed a petition to demand the Sydenham Greenway project should go ahead.

The Sydenham Greenway would enable and support walking and cycling journeys for a vast range of purposes and users, including:


  • park and cycle customers
  • local residents in Sydenham and Knocknagoney
  • leisure users from the Greater Belfast area
  • commuters to the Harbour Estate and Airport
  • shoppers to Holywood Exchange


The bike shelter in your current scheme plan doesn’t tick the box.

You are the Department tasked with getting more people travelling without the need for a car. Instead of weaving that aim into scheme designs, you continue to ignore cycling and walking connections. Members of the public should not have to keep holding you to this basic responsibility on every scheme you design.

It is my considered view that the Tillysburn Park and Ride scheme must not proceed in the absence of a greenway link along this important transport corridor. This is your reminder that active travel is transport.

I look forward to receipt of your revised scheme plan by return email.





Remember, you need to email your response, no later than 5pm on Wednesday 9th May, to:

You can copy us in if you want, to help us gauge the level of response, at:


Thank you for your continued support. By concerted public action, we will get the Sydenham Greenway built!