In July 2020, following a comment by Robert White in a Society Bulletin, Michael Walsh took up the challenge to calculate the longest possible continuous journey on the Irish railway network.

Michael said: It was a really intriguing challenge, time-consuming, and completely useless, but rather good fun, and congratulations to Robert White for coming up with it.

Michael's efforts prompted Tim Morton to have a go.

Not to be outdone, Robert White, who had started the debate, had a go!

Michael Walsh

Robert White poses a question I had often considered but never investigated in any systematic way.

Quick reference to the railway map of Ireland shows two triangular junctions (Charleville and Felthouse) that are crucial to any potential computation of a journey achieving a “longest distance without reversing the engine”, but both of these had limited lives and were eliminated by 1911.

The invaluable Signal Box Register Volume 9, Ireland and the Isle of Man, published by the Signalling Record Society in 2015, gives the relevant dates.

Charleville Junction west to north, opened during 1897 and closed during 1906. Month and date are not recorded for either opening or closure. It seems likely that this 13 chain curve, from the Patrickswell - Charleville line to the GSWR main line, and available only for movements from the Patrickswell line to Up main line (no Down connection), saw little use after the 1901 takeover of the WLWR by the GSWR.

Killinick to Felthouse Junction, opened 2/7/1906 for goods, 1/8/1906 for passengers, and closed 28/5/1911 (last scheduled train 30/9/1910).

For the purposes of calculating a “longest distance without reversing the engine”, it seems reasonable to assume that the Charleville curve had become inoperative before Felthouse opened - a pity, because having the two available simultaneously would allow a significant enhancement of the “longest distance” achievable by either on its own.

The condition “without reversing the engine” is important. This precludes any “backing-up” movement to gain access to a new line. However, this prohibition would exclude any westbound travel from Mallow beyond Killarney, because only in the 21st century did it become possible to run between Mallow and Tralee without backing-up to proceed beyond Killarney (westbound) or enter Killarney (eastbound). Thus Newcastle West would not be reachable as an end point for any “longest distance” journey, at least from the Tralee side, and there are more distant end points reachable from Limerick.

It was also only in the latter part of the twentieth century that it became possible to run through from Cork to Limerick via Limerick Junction without a backing-up movement, although this is not relevant to “longest distance”.

If the “backing-up” constraint is relaxed at least to allow a Killarney style movement, i.e. backing over a cross-over to reach a parallel track, then this could also be usefully relevant at three other locations, namely:

  • Enniskillen, to allow a train from Derry to access the SLNCR side to continue to Collooney;
  • Dundalk, to allow a train from the Belfast direction to access the Irish North, available only by reversing into the Irish North bay from the Up main, although trains from the Clones direction could access the Down main directly;
  • Goraghwood, to access the Newry and Armagh towards Armagh from the Down main line.

In regard to “covering the same length of track no more than twice”, Charleville Junction allowed a one-way continuous circuit from Limerick Check via the Patrickswell line, the Up GSWR main, and back via Nenagh. Felthouse allowed a huge loop from Dublin to Waterford via the South Wexford, returning via the GSWR Waterford via Abbeyleix line - and could be done in both directions.

If backing-up at Goraghwood is allowed, then Armagh, Keady, Castleblayney, Dundalk, Goraghwood and the Markethill line define a closed circuit, from 10/11/1910 to 2/4/1923. The brief overlap with Felthouse may be noted.

It is also to be noted that a direct facing connection existed from the Ennis line to the Foynes Junction line at Ennis Junction/Limerick Check. See the centrespread of IRRS Journal No.182 for a track diagram from c. 1930.

Thus, my computations (with no back-ups) are:

816.25 miles, Youghal to Youghal (and vice versa) - valid 1 August 1906 to 28 May 1911

Youghal to Youghal via Charleville - Patrickswell, Foynes Junction - Limerick Check, Waterford North - Felthouse Junction - Dublin Amiens Street, Waterford North (again) via Abbeyleix, repeat route to Dublin Amiens Street, then Portarlington, Athlone, Athenry, Limerick Ennis Junction - Limerick Check, and via outward route to Youghal (both directions).

This result is surprising, but does have a large amount of repetition.

Start End Miles Total  
Youghal Charleville  63.75 63.75  
Charleville Junction Patrickswell 17.50 81.25  
Patrickswell Limerick Check 6.75 88.00  
Limerick Check Waterford 76.75 164.75  
Waterford Killinick 32.00 196.75  
Killinick Felthouse Junction 2.00 198.75  
Felthouse Junction Westland Row 99.00 297.75  
Westland Row Amiens Street 1.00 298.75  
Amiens Street Islandbridge Junction 4.75 303.50 via Drumcondra
Islandbridge Junction Maryborough 50.50 354.00  
Maryborough Waterford 59.00 413.00  
Waterford Portarlington  180.00 593.00 Repeat
Portarlington  Athlone Midland 39.25 632.25  
Athlone Midland Athenry 35.5 667.75  
Athenry Limerick Check 60 727.75  
Limerick Check Foynes Junction 1 728.75  
Foynes Junction Patrickswell 6.25 735.00  
Patrickswell Charleville 17.5 752.50  
Charleville Youghal 63.75 816.25  

811 miles, Youghal to Newcastle Co Down (northbound only) - valid 1897 to 1906

Youghal to Newcastle (Co Down) via Charleville - Patrickswell, Foynes Junction - Limerick Check, Waterford North - Felthouse Junction - Dublin Amiens Street Junction, Waterford North (again) via Abbeyleix, repeat route to Dublin Amiens Street, then Mullingar, Cavan, Clones, Dundalk, Belfast Central Junction, Newcastle (Co Down).

This is probably the most satisfying route, covering lines of all of the major companies except the NCC. It also has the least repeated mileage and the highest proportion of non-repeated mileage.

Start End Miles Total  
Youghal Charleville 63.75 63.75  
Charleville Patrickswell 17.50 81.25  
Patrickswell Limerick Check 6.75 88.00  
Limerick Check Waterford 76.75 164.75  
Waterford Killinick 32.00 196.75  
Killinick Felthouse Junction 2.00 198.75  
Felthouse Junction Westland Row 99.00 297.75  
Westland Row Amiens Street 1.00 298.75  
Amiens Street Islandbridge Junction 4.75 303.50 via Drumcondra
Islandbridge Junction Maryborough 50.50 354.00  
Maryborough Waterford 59.00 413.00  
Waterford Amiens Street 134.00 547.00 Repeat
Amiens Street Glasnevin Junction 2.25 549.25  
Glasnevin Junction Drumcondra Junction 0.25 549.50  
Drumcondra Junction Liffey Junction 0.75 550.25  
Liffey Junction Cavan 84.25 634.50  
Cavan Clones 39.25 673.75  
Clones Dundalk 39.50 713.25  
Dundalk Belfast Central Junction 57.75 771.00  
Belfast Central Junction Ballymacarrett Junction 2.25 773.25  
Ballymacarrett Junction Newcastle 37.75 811.00 via Downpatrick Loop

777.50 miles, Youghal to Enniskillen (and vice versa) - valid 1 August 1906 to 28 May 1911

Youghal to Enniskillen via Charleville - Patrickswell, Foynes Junction - Limerick Check, Waterford North - Felthouse Junction - Dublin Amiens Street Junction, Waterford North (again) via Abbeyleix, repeat route to Dublin Amiens Street, then Portarlington, Athlone, Claremorris, Collooney WLWR to SLNCR, Enniskillen (SLNCR).

A variant on No.2, omits the GNRI as well as the NCC. It also has more repeated mileage than No.2.

Start End Miles Total  
Youghal Charleville  63.75 63.75  
Charleville Patrickswell 17.50 81.25  
Patrickswell Limerick Check 6.75 88.00  
Limerick Check Waterford 76.75 164.75  
Waterford Killinick 32.00 196.75  
Killinick Felthouse 2.00 198.75  
Felthouse Westland Row 99.00 297.75  
Westland Row Amiens Street 1.00 298.75  
Amiens Street Islandbridge Junction 4.75 303.50 via Drumcondra
Islandbridge Junction Maryborough 50.50 354.00  
Maryborough Waterford 59.00 413.00  
Waterford Portarlington  180.00 593.00 Repeat
Portarlington  Athlone Midland 39.25 632.25  
Athlone Midland Claremorris 57.00 689.25  
Claremorris Collooney WLWR 46.25 735.50  
Collooney WLWR Collooney SLNCR 0.50 736.00  
Collooney SLNCR Ennniskillen SLNC 41.50 777.50  

585.50 miles, Enniskillen to Rosslare Harbour (southbound only) - valid 1897 to 1906

Enniskillen to Rosslare Harbour Pier via Claremorris, Limerick Ennis Junction - Limerick Check - Foynes Junction, Patrickswell, Charleville Junction West - Charleville Junction North, then Ballybrophy, Nenagh, Limerick Check, repeat to Ballybrophy, then Dublin Amiens Street Junction, and on to Rosslare.

The best option without Felthouse. The Charleville triangle is less effective than Felthouse in opening up the network.

Start End Miles Total  
Ennniskillen SLNCR Collooney SLNCR 41.50 41.50  
Collooney SLNCR Collooney WLWR 0.50 42.00  
Collooney WLWR Claremorris 46.25 88.25  
Claremorris Tuam 17.00 105.25  
Tuam Limerick Check 75.75 181.00  
Limerick Check Foynes Junction 1.00 182.00  
Foynes Junction Patrickswell 6.25 188.25  
Patrickswell Charleville Junction West 17.25 205.50  
Charleville Junction West Charleville Junction North 0.50 206.00  
Charleville Junction North Ballybrophy 61.00 267.00  
Ballybrophy Killonan 52.50 319.50  
Killonan Limerick Check 3.75 323.25  
Limerick Check Ballybrophy 86.00 409.25 Repeat 
Ballybrophy Islandbridge Junction 66.00 475.25  
Islandbridge Junction Amiens Street 4.75 480.00  
Amiens Street Westland Row 1.00 481.00  
Westland Row Rosslare Strand 101.00 582.00  
Rosslare Strand Rosslare Harbour Pier 3.50 585.50  

If backing up is allowed, then Newcastle West via Tralee can substitute for Youghal, extension from Enniskillen to Derry (or vice versa) can be allowed, and extra mileage can be added to the Newcastle (Co. Down) proposal by looping from Goraghwood through Keady (only works northward).

It was a really intriguing challenge, time-consuming, and completely useless, but rather good fun, and congratulations to Robert for coming up with it. Worth doing something with, however, and seeing whether there are other possibilities that I've missed.

Tim Morton

Like Michael Walsh, I have found Robert White's competition utterly absorbing and have spent many enjoyable hours pondering the matter, albeit literally going round in circles at times. Michael deserves great credit for getting to the nub of the matter and for his detailed knowledge of junction layouts, which caused me to correct some of my earlier efforts! Like him, I have selected 1906 as the year of my travels.

However, I think there are different ways to interpret the rules. Michael has, with justification, restricted his route to a purist one that could be fully signalled at the time without any back-ups. I agree with prohibiting back-ups but the wording of the competition would appear to be more lax in terms of a signalled route. For example, there is reference to getting onto a line just before the lifting train and my interpretation of that is as long as the track is extant, a route can be used even if it involves unclipping long locked points, wrong line running under special arrangements or even hand signalling. I took the liberty of checking with Robert White and he advised : "I think my idea was along the lines of - if track existed, it could be used."

I contend that brings the north chord at Charleville back into contention. Firstly, it is recorded as having been closed in 1906 without any specific month being mentioned. The chances are that it was not disconnected until late in the year at earliest. Equally, Killinick - Felthouse opened to goods on 2nd July 1906 so the line must have been passable for some weeks before that. I contend that both that link and the Charleville north chord would have been available together at some time in 1906.

On that basis, I attach my best effort so far - 992 miles. Tantalisingly and frustratingly close to the 1,000 mile mark. Maybe someone can find those extra 8 miles!

Start End Miles Total
Enniskillen Collooney (GSWR) 42.00 42.00
Collooney (GSWR) Claremorris 45.75 87.75
Claremorris Athlone Midland 57.00 144.75
Athlone Midland Portarlington 39.25 184.00
Portarlington Islandbridge Junction 41.00 225.00
Islandbridge Junction Amiens Street 4.75 229.75
Amiens Street Wexford 93.75 323.50
Wexford Felthouse Junction 4.25 327.75
Felthouse Junction Killinick Junction 2.00 329.75
Killinick Junction Waterford 32.00 361.75
Waterford Limerick Check 76.75 438.50
Limerick Check Foynes Junction 0.50 439.00
Foynes Junction Patrickswell 6.25 445.25
Patrickswell Charleville North Junction 17.50 462.75
Charleville North Junction Ballybrophy 61.50 524.25
Ballybrophy Limerick Check 56.25 580.50
Limerick Check Foynes Junction 0.50 581.00
Foynes Junction Patrickswell 6.25 587.25
Patrickswell Charleville North Junction 17.50 604.75
Charleville North Junction Islandbridge Junction 127.25 732.00
Islandbridge Junction Amiens Street 4.75 736.75
Amiens Street Wexford 93.75 830.50
Wexford Felthouse Junction 4.25 834.75
Felthouse Junction Killinick Junction 2.00 836.75
Killinick Junction Waterford 32.00 868.75
Waterford Mallow 75.75 944.50
Mallow Cork 21.00 965.50
Cork Youghal 26.50 992.00

Robert White

I blame Alan O’Rourke! His quiz on triangular junctions started me off by trying to list these without the aid of Johnson. That didn’t last long as I remembered mention in railtour brochures of short lived but long lost connections. That resulted in a good wander through Johnson and the emergence of Charleville Junction north chord and Felthouse - Killinick. It didn’t take long to see how these connections opened up all sorts of possibilities and the desire to see how far you could go without needing to turn or reverse. The downside was the limiting date of 1906 – indeed, were both these connections ever available for use at the same time?  I’m going to go for yes. My mistake was staying with Johnson and ignoring further study (in the case of Killarney) or indeed my own research (in the case of Enniskillen).

I was very pleased to start off from Foyle Road, make free with the allowance to use any section of track twice, and end up at Newcastle West with the mileage well past four figures, but I fell into a couple of ditches in doing so. I had ignored the limitations of the connection which linked the GNR to the Sligo at Enniskillen, convincing myself that a straight run through was possible and not bothering to look at any of the diagrams available to me. My second blunder was down to ignorance and again, not bothering to check – surely you didn’t need to enter Killarney if you were en route from Mallow to Tralee? But you did, it would seem.

The Board of Trade’s abhorrence of facing points might have been waning by the early 20th century, but the legacy of many layouts with only trailing connections remained. My four figure total was meaningless, and I had to lop off the 59.5 miles between Foyle Road and Enniskillen (another mile maybe if you noticed you could start from the mixed gauge track of the LP&HC’s lines – good spot, Tim) and then instead of turning right at Killarney Junction, go straight on and end up with the others at Youghal. This cost me dearly and brought my mileage down from 1,075.5 to 958. I don’t care – my knowledge of the Irish network is the richer for the hours spent on, as Michael points out, a wholly futile endeavour, and I can now accurately (but probably only briefly) point to Croom or Tallow Road with confidence. Faced with a diminishing and ever more rationalized network today, it’s also highlighted the difficulties encountered by Mervyn Darragh and anyone who assists in railtour planning.

Start End Miles Total  
Enniskillen Collooney (GSWR) 42.00 42.00  
Collooney (GSWR) Claremorris 46.00 88.00  
Claremorris Tuam 17.00 105.00  
Tuam Limerick Check 76.00 181.00  
Limerick Check Foynes Junction 0.50 181.50  
Foynes Junction Patrickswell 6.25 187.75  
Patrickswell Charleville North Junction 17.50 205.25  
Charleville North Junction Islandbridge Junction 127.25 332.50  
Islandbridge Junction Amiens Street 4.75 337.25  
Amiens Street Wexford 93.75 431.00  
Wexford Felthouse Junction 4.25 435.25  
Felthouse Junction Killinick Junction 2.00 437.25  
Killinick Junction Waterford 32.00 469.25  
Waterford Limerick Check 76.75 546.00  
Limerick Check Charleville North Junction 24.75 570.75 As above
Charleville North Junction Waterford 264.00 834.75 As above
Waterford Mallow 75.75 910.50  
Mallow Cork 21.00 931.50  
Cork Youghal 26.50 958.00  

It seems a decent total, but there are probably more errors, and on reflection, there’s a bit too much repetition really, and no GNR, which is a Bad Thing.

I’ve enjoyed the scholarly responses of Michael and Tim, who clearly approached matters in a more systematic way than I did. I agree with Michael that his Youghal to Newcastle run is the most satisfying and certainly the one I’d most like to make - always nice to finish up at the seaside!

 

Note: There are small differences between some of the sectional mileages used by the two contributors, which may possibly be due to information having been derived from different sources or small errors in interpretation.