BCDR RAILWAY - TRAIN OF THOUGHT |
This original article by Len Ball appeared in 1995 in a series of articles in Comber Community News.
COMBER RAILWAY STATION
Steam trains aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. They’re noisy, dirty, awkward looking beasts - and you have to travel a bit to meet one these days if you live in Comber. But if you happen to be one of the many thousands of peculiar people who actually have an affection for them, then a visit to the marvellous railway gallery of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra will prove a very worthwhile experience. A mouth watering variety of locomotives, carriages and associated memorabilia to remind us of a past transport era are all there on static display for our perusal.
“Behind some quiet voices and a clanking signal arm,
If you want to go a step further, you can experience the delights of steam train travel from Easter onwards in the County Down town of the great saint. The Downpatrick Railway Society is reinstating part of the old Belfast & Co Down Railway into a working museum, with a rebuilt station, gradually enlarging network of lines, and an abundance of trackside buildings and features such as signals, signal box, water tower, goods sheds etc etc. It’s well worth a visit from Easter onwards, when steam and diesel are in operation each weekend for passenger service. To experience the sound of a heavy steam train grinding to a halt beside your very eyes and ears is something not quickly forgotten. There’s nothing else quite like it! Many Comber people know, because they either worked on the railway or were passengers on it.
What railway? The B&CDR or “The oul County Down”. Comber was in the thick of it – the hub of the wheel, you might say, since the main line from Belfast came through here on its way to Newcastle, and it also branched off here on another line to Newtownards and Donaghadee. Comber station platform was as well known to its inhabitants as the street outside their own front doors. It was once the great and sensible way to travel. Imagine the scenario – emerging onto the platform, ticket in hand. You’ll be in Belfast in about fourteen minutes! It’s a balmy summer’s day, a dog barks in the distance, and railway staff make converse at the goods shed just up the end of the platform. A butterfly flutters by in its search for hedgerow fragrance. Forgive my waxing lyrical –
Could be heard the faint arrival of a sound so full of charm.
A trail of squeaking wheels amid a plume of smoke and steam
Rolled onto Comber Station like forever it would seem!!”
The B&CDR began service between Queen’s Quay station in Belfast to Holywood way back in August 1848, the first of its network which eventually spread to over 80 miles of track. By May of 1850 the important industrial town of Newtownards was reached, with the line coming through Comber. First class fare in early days to Newtownards was 9d (about 3½p) while second class was 6d (2½p). There were five trains a day, taking around 35 minutes to reach Ards, and 25 minutes to reach Comber from Belfast. You would have sat in a flat-sided four-wheeled carriage with oil lighting, and the locomotive would have been very basic with no weather protection for the driver or fireman. Until then there was only horse drawn traffic which was slow and uncomfortable, but railway travel in comparison was as smooth as the top on a pint of Guinness! Gillespie, aloft and aloof in Comber Square witnessed the arrival of the railway around the town, since he was five years a friend of the pigeons before the line opened. Andrews Spinning Mill, however, was still 13 years in the future. It’s hard to imagine Comber without the Mill [N.B. Regrettably the Mill closed in 1997], but the ‘Old Comber’ distilleries were going well, so even if the Mill wasn’t spinning you can be sure a few heads up Killinchy Street usually were!
The railway company continued their expansion, and in September 1858 reached the significant market town of Ballynahinch. Comber had now become a junction station. Rail traffic intensified further when the line reached Donaghadee in 1861, and Newcastle (an important watering place) in 1869. The wee town of Comber was now a very substantial station. By 1893 the line from Belfast to Comber was doubled due to the growth of the rail traffic, and the platforms at Comber had become the longest of any on the whole B&CDR system – 832 ft. Apart from passenger traffic Comber saw the movement of a great diversity of goods on the railway. Farm produce and livestock, whiskey, coal, flax and yarn, grain, quarry stone, bricks and building materials, fish, and all the other freight that railways usually carried.
Locomotive numbers rose to thirty by the turn of the century, the largest being the ‘Baltic Tanks’ which weighed about 82 tons. If you consider the weight of a modern motor car as being around a ton then the comparison with a railway engine suddenly becomes interesting! George Dunbar, now deceased, who lived in High Street, was a railwayman since 1919, and remembered the big 'Baltics' being tried on the Newcastle line when they were first delivered from the foundries in England. “They were too heavy on the main line gradients. One of them was hauling a goods train and the couplings broke about a mile out as she was coming into Comber from Ballygowan. Some of the wagons were left behind unknown to the engine men. They only realised what had happened when they stopped at Comber, and by then it was too late. The stray wagons came down the gradient by themselves and bashed into the back of the train. It took the railway all day to clear up the wreckage. There were goods and damaged wagons all over the place!” The ‘Baltics’ never worked the main line again, but did great service on the Bangor branch with long passenger trains.
BCDR RAILWAY MAP
A map of Comber and its railway network will immediately clarify how integrated the trains were with the town and its people. Railways have always been a very labour intensive industry, and many Comber folks were employed by the B&CDR from crossing keepers to Stationmaster. You can still get a good yarn with many of the older inhabitants, who have lasting memories of the trains and the workers around the town. It is no coincidence that, to a person, they still maintain that the railway from Belfast to Comber and Newtownards should never have been allowed to close – just at a time when the expansion of the towns were already in the planning stages!
OLD COMBER RAILWAY STATION
But since the advent of World War One the perfecting of the petrol engine gave alternative vehicles a place in the public transport scene. The charabanc and the petrol hackney, and to a smaller extent the privately owned motor vehicle, all began to appear in opposition to the trains. Cut throat competition between bus owners became a regular scenario, with some even abandoning their machines on the roadside because their tariffs became too low to afford repairs!
The whistle of a train was never far from the ear in Comber, and people were adept at telling the time without the use of a clock. Farmers in the area knew the ‘dinner train’, the ‘milking train’ and the ‘quitin’ train’ as they chuffed their way through the locality. If anyone took out the pocket watch it was so they could set it to the train! Bicycles were the most common sight in the station on working days. A Newtownards man Alex Neil (now deceased) worked as a cleric in Comber station since leaving school around 1919. He took digs in Railway Street, and continued working at the station until it closed in 1950. “The shipyard men rode their bikes up to the station to get the early morning train. The bikes were still going when they leapt into the train as it was starting to leave. There was wheels, pedals and handlebars everywhere, and my job each day was to put them into some sort of order to stop other passengers from falling over them!”
SIGNAL BOX COMBER
Comber until 1926 had two signal boxes. One was on the north side, above Middleton’s garage, and the other was the ‘south box’ placed at the junction of the main line to Newcastle and the branch line to Donaghadee. Alex recalled that in 1926 the station’s new signal box was built on the ‘down’ platform, and this made the other two redundant. “The engineers were fitting out this new signal box, and Mr Johnston the stationmaster asked me to go a message into the town. Well, you would just lift a bike on the platform and away you’d go. The owner would be in the shipyard. I picked a real good one that looked like it was nearly new! When I got back there was a big row going on at the station steps. The stationmaster and the local police sergeant were there looking for the bike I had lifted. It belonged to one of the signal box engineers and he wanted me prosecuted, but I was courting the sergeant’s daughter at the time, and I was let off with a caution!”
Mr William Johnston was stationmaster in the 1930s. When he died in 1936 his brother Samuel took over until the railway closed in 1950. It is interesting to note that their father David John Johnston had been the recipient of two awards for bravery on the railway. Having first been stationmaster in Ballygowan, he saved a man called Patrick Dummigan from certain death on 12th July 1909. Dummigan felt fit to climb the level crossing gates (which were closed to the road traffic), and proceeded to cross the track in the path of an oncoming train. Mr Johnston leapt out and threw him clear as the wheels thundered past them. The local paper addressed Mr Dummigan as having been ‘in a state of some confusion’. One can assume the obvious, since it was ‘The Big Day’! A presentation was given to Mr Johnston by the Duke of Connaught in London at the headquarters of the Order of St John. A few years later, when the same Mr D J Johnston became stationmaster at Comber, history repeated itself when an old aged pensioner, Mr Kelly from Ringneil, fell off the platform in front of a train arriving from Castlewellan. Once again Mr Johnston leapt down and at great danger to himself threw the pensioner clear at the last moment. Many travellers at the station witnessed the event, and were loud in their praise for the rescuer. Old Mr Kelly’s hamper which he carried with him was crushed by the wheels of the train!
There were no less than four level crossings around Comber’s public roads. These consisted of a gate-keeper’s cottage at the track side, and big white wooden gates which were swung out over the railway or the road, depending on what was to be given right of way. The crossing-keeper had to work the gates manually before the arrival of each train, and it is assumed that a sound knowledge of the railway company’s timetable was an essential prerequisite to an uneventful day’s work! The main line on its way to Newcastle crossed the Ballygowan Road beyond Andrews Mill, and the Davidsons latterly operated these gates. The cottage, much modernised, is still in use today.
The Donaghadee branch crossed three roads on its way to Newtownards, the first being at the top of Killinchy Street. It was run by Mrs Grace Hiles in the 20’s, when her son, only 5 years old, was killed by a train on 2nd February 1926. Later the crossing was run by Tommy Cairns, but tragedy struck again, when in heavy snow Tommy was killed by the 7.40 a.m. train to Newtownards on 3rd February 1943. It would appear that the snow insulated the sound of the oncoming train which bore down on the unfortunate man without him even realising. The second crossing was on the Comber-Newtownards Road, often called the ‘Glassmoss’ crossing. However, the actual Glassmoss – an area where special glass making sand used to be dug – was further along where the Island Hill Road branches off. This crossing was operated by the Byers family for many years, and the cottage is still with us today [N.B. Now demolished]. This was the famous crossing where the Tourist Trophy cars used to race round between 1928 and 1936. On race days the railway company built temporary platforms each side of the road, and a wooden footbridge across the road connecting the two. Trains were provided on each side of the crossing, and while the cars screamed round the Dundonald, Newtownards, Comber circuit the railway travelling public could continue their journey by changing trains and using the footbridge. All very clever!
The third level crossing was ‘Henryville’ on the Ballyhenry Road staffed by Andy Bennett, and then in the late 1940s by Mr Patrick McIlreavy. This cottage is also still in use and much modified – in fact the very railway lines are still to be seen in the road beside it to this day. A preservation order might well be considered before a resurfacing or re-alignment plan would have them buried from view forever!
Nowhere in the world was there a wee town so intimately involved with a railway service and an internationally acclaimed motor race, throughout the years of 1928-1936 when the Ards TT was run. Great drivers such as Kaye Don, Carraciola, Nuvolari, Freddie Dixon, Earl Howe, E.R. Hall and so many others vied for position as they hurtled through the various bends, straights, hills and hollows which made the circuit so exceptional. It was a 13.5 mile course from the pits at Dundonald, through Newtownards, Comber, and back to Dundonald again. For a gruelling 30 laps these great driving aces endeavoured to stay between the ‘dykes’ in the hope to finish the race! If they didn’t bash the Newtownards town hall, or McWhinneys butcher shop in Comber Square they were in with a chance of completing the course! Throughout the race the railway continued its service to the public, and found itself carrying many thousands of people to and fro on race day.
It was a time for exploitation, and the railway company built a great grandstand (near Middleton’s Garage today) on the Belfast Road for the public to comfortably view the race as the cars roared out of Comber on their way to Dundonald. Private individuals who lived on the course often made their services available in the way of teas, sandwiches, buns and seats – in exchange for silver and bronze, of course. It was also a regular ploy on race days to charge a few ‘bob’ per head for the convenience of a garden hedge on which to lean over while viewing the race.
INLER STAND TICKET
Rowans, who still have a dwelling and yard on Belfast Road, actually constructed a stand against a large shed beside the road and offered tickets at 10/6d each (52½p) for a good viewpoint. On such race days the railway had its work cut out, and carriage stock was worked to capacity with huge trains constantly coming and going at Comber’s long platforms. Trespass notices on the railway banks and track beds were completely ignored and crowds were so great that railway staff were forced to turn a blind eye! Great masses of seething bodies flocked over banks, bridges and railway property to claim a good view of the race.
At the Glassmoss level crossing the trains were too long for the temporary wooden platforms, and staff were on hand to assist passengers down onto the trackside. A complaint reached the stationmaster (Mr Johnston) from a very angry lady who had been ‘rudely handled’ by one of the staff. The offending employee was apprehended and was asked to explain himself. He declared “I didny do a thing to her! I just said she had the nicest wee bum my hands had been round for queer while”!
The TT continued for 9 years, and is still recognised today as having been the world’s greatest motor sport event ever held on a public road. 1936 was a very sad year, when (ironically) a local Belfast driver Jack Chambers crashed his Riley into a crowd of spectators near Newtownards Hospital as he entered the town at an estimated 104 mph. 8 people were killed and a large number injured. The local council could not come to terms with such a disaster, and as a result the TT became fodder for the history books in the years to follow.
The Carstrand Arch on Belfast Road was once a stone bridge similar to many others like the Marsh Bridge and the Cherryvalley Bridge on the Newtownards branch of the line behind the Laburnum and Cherryvalley estates – they still stand today. [N.B. These bridges were demolished when Phase 2 of the Comber Bypass was completed in 2003]. But in the late 1920s the top of the Carstrand Arch was dismantled to make way for a metal span on top. The main concern was to achieve greater headroom for the enlarging road vehicles such as buses and lorries.
An old railway employee recalled – “There was a while when the top of the bridge was missing, and trains on each side had to meet. The passengers climbed down from the train, went down the bank, crossed the road, went up the other bank, and got into the connecting train. This night one passenger who had a few drops too many stepped out, thinking he was at Comber Station! Well, without a platform there’s a drop of about 3 or 4 feet which he wasn’t prepared for. He must have hit the ballast a bad shape and tumbled down the bank. They found him in the undergrowth at the bottom none the worse for wear singing ‘Show me the way to go home’”!
BCDR DIESEL-ELECTRIC LOCOMOTIVE
In 1933 the B&CDR found itself having the reputed distinction of being the first railway company in the world to employ the use of a diesel-electric locomotive for goods and passenger services. It was built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, weighed 33¼ tons with a diesel engine powering a generator which provided electricity to the motors which in turn drove 4 of its 6 wheels. All very clever stuff! Since it was largely an experiment it remained the property of H &W but was on hire to the railway. It had its share of breakdowns over the years but remained with the B&CDR until closure, when it returned to H &W. This rather odd locomotive usually served the 4-mile branch between Ballynahinch Junction and Ballynahinch, but it came into Comber frequently as an extension to its duties. On Saturday lunchtimes she could be seen coming in to Comber’s platforms on her way to Belfast and back.
A fine sight at the station was the excursion trains on their way to the great seaside towns of Donaghadee and Newcastle. The schools, Sunday schools and Andrews’ Mill among others were patrons of these excursions in Comber which took them to the ‘far off watering places’. The excitement, noise and spectacle of train loads of day trippers was something which was to become indelibly etched in the minds of Comber folks, who had no other opportunity to sample the delights of sun, sand and sea in such desirable resorts! How many people remember with affection the big shrub bed between the two avenues up to the station, the wooden awning and the entrance steps?
Horses and carts were abundant in earlier days, and were a familiar sight on their way to and from the goods yard gates at the top of the station avenue. Beyond these gates were the sidings, the cattle dock where the farmers herded their sheep, cows, horses etc for boarding the cattle wagons, the yard crane for lifting heavy loads from and to the trucks which the engines shunted alongside, the goods shed (today’s Quickfit Garage operated by Comber’s Brian Orr, and now designated Comber’s Fire Station in the not too distant future) [N.B. This building is now Comber Fire Station] where an exchange platform was used between rail and road transport in the movement of goods. It was all another way of life then, when hard physical work was the common indulgence for most people, and leisure was not the pursuit or the demand that it is today. Tom Corken Senior, who was very well known as the town’s coalman over many years recalled the days of hard graft involved when shovelling coal from the wagons in the goods sidings into the horse carts alongside. “Two of us would have shovelled all day and cleared two ten-ton wagons. I was young and fit then!”
RAILWAY LINES AT COMBER
On the platforms at Comber station could be seen a large variety of bright and colourful enamel advertising signs. Throughout the great years of train travel the railways were the arteries of the country, feeding towns and cities with the thousands of travellers which pumped commerce and industry into the nation. Where better to display the great profusions of adverts, catching the eye of a ready made audience! Along with the station and signal box walls, colourful adverts were to be seen on bridge abutments for the passing road traffic as well. Tyler’s Boots, Cadbury’s Chocolate, Oxo, Bovril, Zebo Polish, various cigarette and insurance companies, and farm feed products were just a few which all graced the structures around Comber. “Feedol” was a meal for chickens etc which was rather similar to cornflakes, and some who recall it have admitted to eating the odd handful themselves since it was almost too good for the hens! These signs today would command very good prices to a collector. Can anyone remember the large round “Van Houten Cocoa” advert high on a gable wall at the top of Mill Street near the Pools Office? Having been there for a lifetime someone saw fit to claim it for themselves a couple of years ago – and in broad daylight!
Standing on the platform on a Saturday afternoon around 12 noon – 10 p.m. you could have witnessed the “Golfer’s Express” snorting non-stop through Comber – a hole in one from Belfast to Newcastle where the famous Slieve Donard Hotel (owned by the BCDR) and its magnificent golf club played host to the aristocratic travellers, clubs, bags and caddies, all housed in the very plush and comfortable saloon coach next to the engine. This carriage was originally built in 1897 as the royal coach for Queen Victoria. Later it was converted into a “first class” saloon fitted with tables and very plush seating. Eventually the coach became the golfer’s exclusive carriage, tucked away beneath the canopies at Queen’s Quay Station until each Saturday when shunted onto the head to the 1.00 p.m. Newcastle express. This was the only regular express on the line, and operated in the one direction only. Along with the golf clubs were the playing cards and more than a few bottles of “beverage” for the exhilarating journey to the shadow of the Mournes! It’s quite understandable that some of our October townsfolk still remember the “Golfer’s Express” with such relish!
The general timetable pattern of the “County Down” provided what were known as “stopping trains” on the route from Belfast to Newtownards and Donaghadee, where the train lifted and layed off passengers at all stations on the way ie Fraser Street, Bloomfield, Neill’s Hill, Knock and Dundonald. The main line services to Newcastle were often “through trains” to Comber ie only stopping at stations from Comber onwards. This necessitated passengers at the aforementioned list of stations to embark on a Donaghadee train and changing at Comber platform for the following main line train to Newcastle. A common voice echoed throughout the platforms as the Donaghadee train rolled to a halt. “Change here for Ballygowan, Saintfield, Ballynahinch, Crossgar, Downpatrick and Newcastle – if ye dinny get oot ye canny say ye werny telt!”
QUEEN'S QUAY RAILWAY STATION
However, from Queen’s Quay any Newcastle or Donaghadee train would have suited a Comber resident, so long as he remembered to alight when he reached the familiar sight of the Comber canopies with the large three leaf clover design cut out of the awning soffits. A common failure on the late trains was to fall asleep on the way in, and re-awake at a strange platform well beyond the wee town of Comber. A long walk home with much muttering and gnashing of teeth was the only option if the last train back had already gone!
Comber Station had two subways, a north and a south. These gave access to both platforms by walking down a flight of steps and under the railway line. They were very echoey and water dripped from above, but glass square-sets at strategic points between the tracks provided a modicum of useful light in daylight hours. At night however the station was lit by gas from Comber’s own Gas Works in Mill Street (near the site of the Baptist Church). The Gas Works began life in 1847 and was a great boon to the privileged few who could afford it right into their own homes, and also to the public at large by way of street illumination. Gas lighting was erected around the town at strategic places for the good of all. The Gas Works continued until 1957 when it was hopelessly uneconomical in contrast to the new modern electric lighting, which had burgeoned from the early 50’s.
There was a flight of steps beside the North Down House which gave access from the “down” platform (outward from Belfast) to the street below. They also provided those of the travelling public who enjoyed a wee tot with a means of getting to the pub quicker! Conversely, anyone whiling his time away in the pub till the next train could (if he hadn’t become legless in the interim) scurry up the steps and fling himself into the first available compartment before the train sped off again! Across the way on the “up” platform (inward to Belfast) was Eason’s newspaper kiosk, ably managed for many years by Madge Watson. This Eason paper business was eventually purchased by Gordon Smyth, whose shop was in Comber Square, the business later being bought by James Miskelly snr, and run at James’s home in Castle Street where a paper could be purchased amid the Dinky Toys, Meccano Sets, bottles of mineral, liquorice sticks and Mrs Cullen’s Powders. In my own youth the smell in Miskelly’s shop was one of the most pleasant in my memories – a heady mixture of new toys, Dandys, Beanos and sticky sweets.
There were no less than three waiting rooms at Comber Station. On a cold winters night they always revealed a cheery coal fire at which to sit and warm the hands – and read the latest headlines in the daily paper. Various vending machines displayed their wares in order to get the compulsive nibbler to part with hard-earned cash. However, not everyone used money in exchange for their bar of chocolate! Two old mates in Comber related their pranks at the station. “My da worked in the shipyard and he used to bring home these big washers that they made the same size as a penny. They fitted the machines dead on, and if Johnston (the stationmaster) wasn’t about we would raid them and then spend the night in a wagon smokin’ fags and eatin’ the bars of chocolate!”
The heyday of the Belfast and County Down Railway was way back around the turn of the century, when the total of its mileage was by now fully laid and running, the Slieve Donard Hotel was built and functioning, and the internal (infernal!) combustion engine was only just beginning to rear its ugly head. World War One speeded inventiveness and a greater progress of the new petrol engine road vehicle was an inevitability. By the end of the war the writing was on the wall for the railway’s transport monopoly. The motor bus was beginning to provide routes to the public where the railway couldn’t go – like town centres, and past front doors of people’s houses.
SAMMY DAVIDSON'S BUS
By the 1920’s Sammy Davidson who had a grocery shop and a coal yard at the bottom of Killinchy Street near the Square (where Kane’s showroom now stands) was running omnibuses to Belfast. One of his buses was called ‘Iona’ and another was ‘Myona’. Jimmy Kirk and Robert Gibson were tow of his drivers, and one of the conductors (who in those days collected the fares) was Jim Cook. Also at this time motor taxis were becoming available. Tommy Crosby ran a taxi, and had his garage under the Thompson Hall in Mill Street. On top of this road freight services were appearing and so the railways felt the first stings of a declining passenger and goods revenue, and the obvious loss of dividend for the Company shareholders. As a consequence utility on the railways became the order of total necessity. Rail travel and the grandeur it once stood for was now becoming a thing of the past.
With the outbreak of World War Two came petrol rationing, and the railways which by now were badly run down acquired some much needed revitalisation. Troops and evacuees were conveyed in large numbers and once again the trains showed their superiority to the buses in their ability to facilitate vast quantities of people and equipment with relative ease and at good speed. It was at this time that scrap metal was much needed for the war effort, and so around 1940-41 Gillespie in the Square lost his tall security railings at the foot of the monument. A large German field gun (given to Comber for the award of the V.C. to Edmund de Wind in the First World War), which had sat in the Square for over 20 years, was also cut up and taken away. Many garden railings around Comber were commandeered. We can be certain that the sterling work of transporting all this heavy steel and iron to Belfast was carried out by none other than the B&CDR – all extra much needed work for the ailing railway. No one could predict, however, that by the end of World War Two our local railway would be staggering from a horrible blow to any resources it had tried to build up.
The Ballymacarrett accident on a thick fog laden January morning in 1945 involved two trains, one from Bangor, and the other from Holywood. They were both well filled with early morning workers on their way to Belfast when one ran into the rear of the other with disastrous results. 22 people were killed, and many were injured, and the Company had to pay out over £80,000 – publicity and costs it could ill afford!
By the end of World War Two the dreams of many to buy their own motor car was becoming reality, and so, once again, the rail profits began to tumble. To shake up and co-ordinate the hitherto arch enemies – the buses and the railways – the Government introduced “The Ulster Transport Authority” in 1948, announcing their desire to mould both transport systems into one strong and efficient entity, giving the travelling public better road and rail connections and facilities.
In Comber Station you would have seen a change of uniform and tickets. The keen eyed engine spotter would note that some of the locomotives were now painted black instead of the B&CDR dark green. But if anyone was to be renewed with confidence by the UTA’s apparent revival policy it was not to be for long. Just a few months after its inauguration proposals were made to close down the majority of Northern Ireland’s railway network! This, of course, included Belfast to Comber and everything beyond! A protest meeting was held in Andrews Memorial Hall on 4th May 1949 for local people to air their views. Chaired by Mr J.M. Andrews MP it was apparent that those present certainly did not want to lose their railway since many hundreds of Comber folks travelled by train every day. Mr Andrews asked “What would the congestion on the roads and in the buses be like if all those people had to travel by bus?” Mr David Munn JP, speaking for Down County Council, felt that inevitably there would be frequent accidents in the narrow streets of Comber if the railway were closed. Rev J.E. Jones of Second Comber Presbyterian Church stated “It surely seems outrageous to close a permanent line running through a rich and fertile countryside bordering on a great industrial city which daily carries people and freight to and fro!” Dr J.K.L. McKean (First Comber) claimed “We do not realise the value of good health until it is gone, and perhaps we will not realise the value of the Co Down Railway and the part it played in our lives until it has vanished”.
Despite many protest meetings the government bulldozed their proposals into effect. The entire B&CDR network including trains, rolling stock, track, all stations, buildings, land, employees houses, hotels including the Slieve Donard etc etc etc all for the ridiculous and paltry sum of £495,000. This was considered by many to be nothing short of legalised vandalism and robbery – a ploy to get the railways off their backs, and so, open up the way for a total road monopoly, something which those on the board of the UTA were aiming for since their inception!
April 22nd 1950 saw the very last train out of Comber station, and the rest of the main line and the Donaghadee branch formally closed. Many mourned the loss of their railway but nothing could be done. “Progress” had left its scar. There was an impressive turnout at Comber’s platforms to bid farewell to the end of an era, and some Comber folks still have their ticket of that last fateful journey among their souvenirs.
COMBER STATION STAFF (late 1920s)
Standing (left - right) - Andy Magowan (Porter), George Dunbar (Head Porter), Sammy Thompson (Boy Porter)
Seated (left - right) - Alex Neill (Clerk), George Swindle (Signalman), Mr Johnston (Station Master)
The buses were made to the victors and a proportion of the railway staff were absorbed into the road services. But what a let down! George Dunbar of High Street, Comber, received his letter of transfer when the station closed. He had been a signalman with a lifetime of knowledge, responsibility and expertise in his railway profession. His letter read – “I have been impressed by your anxiety to do your job properly and punctually. If this spirit is continued in your new job you will have the satisfaction of doing it well”. And the new job he had been offered? Bus cleaner at a depot in Belfast!
In its years before total disappearance Comber station was used as a ticket office and store for the UTA and its buses. Many of us can still remember the variety of double deckers and single deckers in their two-tone green and white livery.
LIFTING OLD RAILWAY LINES
Before being lifted the tracks lay for three years gathering dust and rust on surfaces where it was never seen before. One by one the buildings came down, the water tower between the mill dams at Laureldale, the weighbridge at Railway Street, the signal boxes (all three), the cattle beach and crane in the goods yard. Someone made off with the lead guttering from the station’s bog long roof, and as a last destructive insult the new by-pass in 1962 unfurled itself shamelessly along the very track bed which had played host to 100 years of trains! Even the Stationmaster’s house is gone. All that remains today (1995) of Comber’s grand station and railway heritage is the old goods shed, mercifully retained as a council store for some years, and at present occupied by Brian Orr as a garage and exhaust centre. But even now history is still in the making. Just recently Comber has been promised its own fire station, and guess where it’s going to be. Yes, the dear old goods shed! Brian will have to go – that’s bad enough for a man who’s worked hard to build up his business, but so much worse even than that if the powers that be were to demolish this last vestige of Comber’s railway history, or change the building unrecognisably. Here’s hoping! [Thankfully the goods shed has been tastefully converted into Comber Fire Station].
The Train left in nineteen fifty, but the future wasn’t seen.
I’m quite sure that if common sense and even a little bit of foresight had come into play then the railway to Comber and Newtownards would still be with us today. By 1950 diesel railcars were emerging, housing estates were looming up on many horizons in the very areas the railway served, and the motor car’s frenetic rise in popularity was becoming a known factor. If only local government officials had surrounded a genuine crystal ball and seen visions around it of North Down’s huge rise in population and housing, the intolerable traffic congestion and road development turmoil, and (probably worst of all) the unforgivable casualty and pollution problems which we deem acceptable in this day and age in order to get from one place to another with the least possible effort! Given the choice today I believe a greater number of people would re-think the use of the train in our area – modern, fast, clean and efficient rapid transit rail travel with diesel – or better still electric motive power could be the saviour to the motoring madness we are all having to put up with at the present time. Northern Ireland Railways are currently keeping a very close eye on the old track bed from Belfast to Dundonald and Comber. Surely it’s the obvious and sensible way to go!
For they didn’t know how useful our old railway would have been.
Gone but not forgotten as that train went down the track,
The silver rails just disappeared – but now we need them back!
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