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Donegal visit in 2006.

Page last updated on 18th September 2013

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Donegal, the most northerly county in the Republic of Ireland (or the "south" as the Republic is often referred to, that particular term being incorrect as in fact the county contains the most northerly point (Malin Head) on the entire island) was to be our destination for the June bank holiday weekend in 2006. And so after some perusal of maps and brochures, we settled on a hotel on the edge of Letterkenny, the largest town in Donegal. Interestingly there's a roundabout near the hotel, with a railway bridge in the middle of it. The arch of the bridge is clearly that of a single track narrow gauge, but as it was hard to visualize a road once running above the line (given the angle and level of the roads approaching the roundabout), my thoughts were that it may have been demolished elsewhere and re-erected on the site.

Letterkenny though, until 1953, did house the headquarters of one of two of Donegal's narrow gauge railway systems, in this case the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway Company. Although the LLSR started running buses in 1929, and still does to this day, it has never dropped the word "Railway" from its official title. The buses (or most of them at the time of my visit) had "Swilly" on the front and sides, but the timetables on display in the local bus station referred to "Lough Swilly Buses", while the bus office certainly shows signs of a building that was clearly originally a railway station premises, in this case bearing the date 1908 on the front wall.

Standing at the other side of the building, where the buses load, I tried to visualize the presence of narrow gauge steam trains starting their journeys from the same point over 50 years ago. Alongside the adjacent road there's a retail unit which must have been the engine shed at one point, but the land beyond that where the trackbed would have been is now covered by a shopping centre. Bus Eireann also operate services from the town, and their name and logo is on both sides of the station building, suggesting that it may be jointly owned by both bus operators.

While observing the few modern buses which were loading, I also thought of the variety of vehicles which would have worked from here in past years. In Swilly terms that included Ireland's first Atlantean (UI 8616), four ECW bodied AEC Regals, ex Southdown Royal Tigers, ex Ribble Tiger Cubs, ex CIE Leopards, ex Ulsterbus Bedfords, Tiger Cubs and Leopards, not to mention other Leopards from the likes of Scottish Bus Group, Trent, Wallace Arnold, Nottingham, Yorkshire Woollen, Lancaster, Ribble........ In 2006 there is a high concentration of ex Ulsterbus/Citybus Bristol REs, Dennis Darts and Leyland Tigers, as well as some Leyland Lynxes. And another feature of the Swilly fleet is the use of Setright ticket machines, how many operators are still using these in 2006?

Lough Swilly Dennis Dart 492 is ex Citybus 631, now re-registered 94 DL 5785. These are the first LLSR buses to carry Wrights bodywork.

Bus Eireann's VC320 had just arrived from Dublin when photographed, and was due to do a return trip later the same evening.

Bus Eireann's presence comprised newer vehicles in the form of Sunsundegui bodied Volvo B12Ms, and one 2003 Caetano bodied Volvo B10M. I suppose fewer buses were about due to the bank holiday. To get a flavour of the sort of territory which Lough Swilly serve, a car journey was taken from Letterkenny as far west as the village of Kincasslagh, which sees two LLSR buses per day. Beautifully rugged but isolated would probably best describe the territory, other than a sense of public duty it's hard to see why any company would run buses through such terrain. Profit surely has to be well down the list? On the way back, passing through the village of Fintown, we spotted a sign for a preserved railway. As mentioned above there were two narrow gauge systems at one time, the other one being the County Donegal Railway which lasted until 1960 by virtue of its partial dieselisation policy. And here in 2006, was the only surviving bit of both companies – a two mile track running alongside Lough Finn, probably in LLSR territory, but with an ex CDR railcar and a couple of trailers which looked like European trams. Despite it having been used for a wedding private hire just two days earlier, its 2006 operating season was not due to start until mid June, so no trip was possible. Here though is a view of the line and the lake, about a mile outside the village.

Before leaving Letterkenny, a quick visit was made to the Lough Swilly garage, and I noted the last example of the once large fleet of ex Ulsterbus Leopards, 296, still in use as their towing vehicle. In the yard were some ex Citybus Tigers and RELLs, as well as an ex Bus Eireann CVH class Van Hool Acron. Just as we were about to leave Letterkenny and head for home, an ex Citybus RELL put in an appearance, ex 2514 which is now 468 (one of the modified windscreen versions). Annoyingly it was the last of the batch not then listed as being re-registered, but when seen it had been done. Did I bother writing down the new mark? NO!!!! The photo which I took is also too fuzzy to see the plate clearly, as below....

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