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.

Cyclegeddon, an impressive political focus on cycling, rumbled for the first five weeks of the 2013-14 Northern Ireland Assembly session. Cycling has risen up the political agenda like never before in Northern Ireland.

The early throes of #Cyclegeddon started with the encouraging announcement of a new DRD Cycling Unit to co-ordinate policy across departments. This seems to have made MLAs more eager to probe into past, current and future policy ideas from various Ministers.

The scale of the response from MLAs is remarkable. Within the first five weeks of the 2013-14 Assembly term, 118 questions on cycling issues have been asked. This surpassed the 100 questions asked in the whole of the last year at Stormont.

Continue reading “Cyclegeddon latest”

The North Down Coastal Path remains a gem in Northern Ireland’s tourist and leisure offering. The section from Holywood to Bangor stretches 10 miles along rocky shores, fine sandy beaches, quiet coves, country parkland, busy promenades and moments of perfect isolation. This post celebrates the importance of the North Down Coastal Path, and looks at the work ahead to release its full potential.

© Copyright Michael Parry and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

As a kid growing up in Troubles Belfast, there was always a little bit of magic about day trips to North Down. Whether it was the chocolate box train stations, the many fun activities, or just the sharp change of scenery just minutes out of the city, it was an easy place to fall in love with. Finding out that there was a ‘secret path’ that went for miles around the coast added to the mystique. It later became a favourite adventure to cycle* from Belfast to Bangor and back.

Explore the North Down Coastal Path on Google Maps

The attraction of the Coastal Path today is just as great. Starting on the Belfast side, the path begins around Holywood, starting its close relationship with both the sea and the railway as it passes close to Holywood Station. There are 8 railway stations from Holywood to Bangor and most are with 500m of the Coastal Path, making short trip options wonderfully flexible. The section at Seapark, according a recent tendering process, will shortly be upgraded to enhance walking and cycling* access. Striking out from the urban environment the path passes playgrounds and millionaires’ retreats, mixing shared footpaths with residential roads.

Ross [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The first stop of major interest is at Cultra. The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum covers a large area on both sides of the busy A2 road, and the two sites have enough of interest for a day trip each. These museums cover a vast timeline of Irish cultural and engineering history. Unfortunately there is no direct access from the Coastal Path into the Transport Museum site, with a long trip up the nearby Glen Road and back down to the main entrance the only option.

Onwards to Station Road, marking the end of the residential sections of the route, and a fierce contrast to the smooth promenades and streets so far. Crossing the boundary of the Royal Belfast Golf Club, a tight mud/gravel path clings to the shoreline, between crass fencing and artificial sea defences.

© Copyright Eric Jones and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Some sections near here are due for upgrade, but a comprehensive look at improvements to weak links in the chain is necessary. Comments on Twitter suggest commuters to Belfast from Seahill and further would benefit from a realistic option to cycle* somewhere other than the main A2. Improvement works have been seen in recent years, especially as we move on past the Rockport School.

© Copyright Eric Jones and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Approaching Seahill there is a rocky inlet which is traversed by two flights of steps and a high narrow path. This effectively cuts the Coastal Path in half for wheelchair users and anyone pushing a bicycle* who may be unable to lift and carry a bike up and down the narrow flights.

© Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

North Down Borough Council have been working with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency to provide a sustainable and environmentally acceptable alternative. This is currently planned to be a boardwalk, level with the rest of the path. Once completed this will boost the potential of the entire route.

A leisurely stretch brings us to Helen’s Bay, and as the path turns southeast towards Bangor, the Grey Point Fort dominates the headland. Sighting Scotland for the first time, a steep climb and a quick nip onto the local road finds us dandering down towards Crawfordsburn Country Park.

© Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

On sunny summer days the beach and surrounding fields come alive with day trippers tucking into picnics and the sounds of delighted kids. Secluded woodland walks, waterfalls and spectacular railways arches lie in wait away from coastline. In days gone past the railway halt at Crawfordsburn allowed day trippers the option of a train directly to the beach path. Today the Helen’s Bay Station is still close, but the vast majority of visitors to Crawfordsburn Country Park still arrive by private vehicle.

© Copyright Kenneth Allen and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Passing the impressive Crawford House complex (read more about the history of Crawfordsburn Park on the Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland website), wide promenades have taken us across two beaches. Reaching Swineley Bay, the path stops abruptly and it’s a dander over the sand to the other side of the beach. Not too much of a problem for ramblers, joggers and dog walkers, but another difficulty for anyone with self-propelled transport*.

© Copyright Eric Jones and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

The Coastal Path and railway line finish their game of hide and seek as the outskirts of Bangor are reached at Carnalea Golf Club. Leaving sandy beaches behind for more rocky shores, the path twists and undulates towards Smelt Mill Bay, naturally regulating any speeding wheels*. Turning round to face Bangor Marina, the Pickie Pool may no longer stand proud on this side of town, but today’s Pickie Fun Park shows how investment in new facilities can reap great rewards for a local economy.

© Copyright Rossographer and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Tourism has influenced the development of Bangor since Victorian times, and although slow to respond to the changing holiday habits from the 1960s onwards, the town is beginning to thrive on smart investments such as the Marina complex and integrated transport hub. The North Down Coastal Path may be a small part of the overall package for Bangor, but with Belfast just a couple of leisurely hours away by bike* and tourism becoming more important to Northern Ireland as whole, the North Down Coastal Path should be given greater marketing prominence as a high quality active travel corridor.

To cycle* or not?

Two issues seem to dominate discussion of shared paths like this one, dogs and cyclists. It may come as a surprise how the the issue of cycling has been settled – North Down Borough Council by-laws prohibit cycling on any part of the North Down Coastal Path. Hence the coy cycling* references earlier!

Councillors are actively working on solving this problem, now widely recognised as outdated and largely unenforced in practice. In fact, Council cycling information signs are common along the route, and leaflets on the North Down Borough Council website even promote Sustrans’ National Cycle Network as running on sections of the path.

While mixing cyclists with ramblers can be difficult, the North Down Coastal Path for the most part naturally calms the top speed of leisure cyclists – either by tight twisting passages or the relentless glorious scenery to be savoured. This is not a welcome nor coveted environment for faster road cyclists or Strava junkies, especially as many sections are still suitable for a mountain bike only.

There is perhaps a more fundamental tension at work here between the interests of local users and those wishing to develop a route capable of attracting and handling higher usage. The same complaints play out on the Lagan Towpath and Comber Greenway, but everyone must face the reality that these routes are being developing as mixed use to maximise the numbers and range of users.

Consideration and respect is necessary for a harmonious environment; prohibition is a blunt instrument which isn’t working and holds the path back. The local economy can only benefit from increased usage of the path by day tripping cyclists from Belfast, whether resident or tourist.

Tillysburn gates confusion

Getting to the North Down Coastal Path from the Belfast side is challenging, and there is a need for a new traffic-free route into Belfast. From The Esplanade in Holywood there is a quiet coastal road which leads to the entrance of the Belfast Harbour Estate at the end of the George Best Belfast City Airport runway. The road is private, owned by the Ministry of Defence as part of the Kinnegar Barracks, yet walking and cycling is so common and accepted that the gates onto the Harbour Estate are now permanently open.

Kinnegar Gates

This is very welcome for local users but is only one hurdle to a continuous, fully accessible greenway route. Just 100m from this opening are the Tillysburn Harbour Gates, operated by the Belfast Harbour Police.

A sign here suggests overnight closures during the week and shut gates all day Sunday. In conversation with the Harbour Police, these hours were confirmed as open from 6.30am Mon-Sat, closed around 11pm each weekday, causing few problems for commuting and leisure. But the Sunday closure was also confirmed, with the gates locked at 7pm on Saturday night and not opening again until Monday morning – prime time for leisure use.

Tillysburn Gates

To make sure of the situation, I took trip down and observed wide open gates at 12pm on Sunday 21st April, obviously contradicting the only publicly available sources of advice. No accurate information available on the Belfast Harbour website at the time of writing.

It’s a confusing situation for everyone – the very existence of a barrier shown as closed on Google Maps creates uncertainty – and clarity is required. In the first instance the Harbour website needs to be regularly updated with access hours, allowing all the relevant tourism sites to reflect the latest info. In the medium term, a more permanent arrangement for a continuous pathway makes more sense.

This could be achieved either by setting the whole security barrier back by 150m to give a clear route through to Kinnegar, or developing a separate ‘greenway’ path away from the road near to the edge of the lagoon. With the main A2 road unappealing for leisure cycling or rambling, making full use of this section for sustainable travel is essential for the future of the North Down Coastal Path.

For more on the North Down Coastal Path and opening a quality link to Belfast read part two on the Belfast to Bangor Greenway: the final link.

Many thanks for input on both posts from the following Twitter bods: @_Helmholtz_ @BrianLatewood @chasingsilver1 @oceanbump @chris0ward @RichardJeffrey1 @AndrewMuirNI @StripyMoggie @andyboal @10ON12 @collapsibubble @ye_Bhoy_ye @rinkyrinky 

A new Greenway connecting Randalstown and Toome is a project which could bring health and leisure benefits to the local population, and be a key tourist link on the north shore of Lough Neagh.


This was the route which first interested me in the former railway lines in Northern Ireland. The railway viaduct dominates the eastern approach to Randalstown, which in recent years had been redeveloped to provide a scenic walkway. This was a link across the River Maine for the Belfast and Northern Counties railway line stretching from Antrim, through Randalstown to Toome and onwards to Magherafelt. I traced the route on Google Maps and began to think of this entire proposal.

Continue reading “Randalstown to Toome Greenway”