Westport-Achill: failed railway or failed regional development?

Notes from the Western Periphery

ABANDONED A section of the disused railway line from Achill to Westport before it was reopened as a cycle route.

John Bradley

The Westport-Achill railway had been long gone when I was a child in the 1950s, visiting my grandparents in Murrisk. I first heard of it in the 1960s when I had a holiday job working for Commander Oliver Stoney at Rosturk Castle. One of my tasks was to paint his boat, stored in a handsome wooden boathouse, which, he told me, had been originally used to house the ‘navvies’ working on the railway in the early 1890s.
It is very easy to dismiss this late 19th century rail link as a foolish scheme and a waste of money: a cathedral built in a desert that never had any viable future. Indeed, many would extend this criticism to the present and direct serious investment in infrastructure away from the western periphery to the eastern and southern population centres.
A recent re-reading of Jonathan Beaumont’s ‘Rails to Achill: A West of Ireland Branch Line’ (published in 2002 by The Oakwood Press) prompts a different interpretation. Arthur Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland, created the Congested Districts Board in 1890. Believing that underdevelopment in rural Ireland was a catalyst of violence, he promoted what today would be called regional development. Many nationalists regarded it as a cynical attempt to ‘to kill home rule with kindness’.
The Light Railways (Ireland) Act of 1889 provided capital for projects that would not be commercially attractive to privately owned rail companies of that era and generated many speculative proposals to link scattered towns of northwest Mayo. The Dublin-Westport line had been operating since 1866, the Manulla-Ballina line since 1873. Two additional links were constructed: Ballina to Killala (1893) and Westport to Achill Sound (1895). Work on the latter started in late 1890, and the line was fully open for business on May 13, 1895, linking Westport, Newport, Mulranny and Achill. A year earlier, on June 16, 1894, the line had been used to transport thirty coffins of victims of the hooker capsize at Westport Quay back to the outskirts of Achill Sound, since the final Mulranny-Achill stage was incomplete.
Just as canal builders of the late 18th century never anticipated the arrival of steam-powered trains, railway builders of the late 19th century never anticipated the arrival of oil-powered road transport.  

New era
In view of the dearth of safe harbours and the medieval condition of the road network in northwest Mayo, a rail link was seen as ushering in a new era of easier transport of people and goods.
However, the terrible weakness of the regional economy was not fully appreciated. The newly built MGWR Hotel in Mulranny attracted visitors in July and August, but almost none in the off-season. The fishing industry was small, inefficient, and imperfectly linked to the rail service. A low level of business activity and general absence of manufacturing never generated profitable revenues for the rail company, who had only reluctantly taken over the operation of the line and were never able to maintain it adequately.
In the background, the population of Mayo was in freefall, from a pre-famine peak of 388,000 in 1841 to a trough of 109,000 in 1971, losing almost three quarters of its population.  More precisely, over the 42 years of operation of the rail link, the population declined from 219,000 to 161,000, a fall of over a third.  
This put the commercial operation of the railway in a hopeless position. Proposals to close it were mooted in 1934, but it was obliged to soldier on until 1937 simply because the condition of the roads was too poor to support the use of lorries and buses. As a final idiocy of public policy, when it was closed, the MGWR company had to lift the tracks in order to avoid paying rates on the mothballed line!

Abandoned rail line
However, the Gods eventually smiled on the Westport-Achill rail line.  When Jonathan Beaumont wrote his book in 2002, his post-closure photographs showed a sad, overgrown wilderness of decay. But Tanya Whyte, a native of Westport, had already written a QUB dissertation on ‘Railways Reused: A Case Study of the Westport-Achill Disused Railway Line’ back in 1998.  She considered three options: reinstating the line; a ‘do nothing’ approach; and development as a public amenity.  For this rail line, there was no credible economic case for reinstatement.  The ‘do nothing’ case was a waste of a potentially valuable resource. Development as a public amenity was the obvious choice.  
Eventually, as a result of vigorous campaigning by cycling enthusiasts and others, the full-line from Westport to Achill was opened as an off-road greenway in 2011 and has proved to be spectacularly successful. The tourism numbers that the rail company had dreamed of became a reality with the greenway.  The small towns and villages along the greenway benefitted and enhanced their visitor-related facilities.

Cyclists on restored greenway
This happy ending to a doomed rail enterprise should not distract attention from the development challenges still facing towns in northwest Mayo. They too once had a rail connection, the Western Rail Corridor. For these, Tanya Whyte’s prescient analysis would likely favour reinstatement of the line since these towns have sizeable populations and sustain significant business enterprises. For Ireland to meet binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions will require restoration of the more ecological, rail-based transport network.  All we need is an Irish Balfour!

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.