Co. Donegal Railways, Ireland – Part 3 – Petrol Railmotors

The Co. Donegal Railways were early adopters of modern technology, First, in the early 1900s, it was petrol railmotors with which they flirted. Later, they were the quickest narrow-gauge lines in the British Isles to adopt diesel railcars. This post looks at the Co. Donegal’s use of petrol railmotors! I have generally called the petrol-powered vehicles ‘railmotors’ and when I get round to looking at the later vehicles starting with No. 7, I will call them ‘railcars’!

When W.R. Lawson retired in 1910, Henry Forbes was appointed as Secretary and Traffic Manager. Forbes was an innovator. He realised very quickly that an increase in the number of stopping places would result in increased usage of the network. He introduced a number of new halts. He also introduced a number of improvements in many of the more established stations. And in a very short time he started to allow the railmotors and railcars he bought to stop anywhere on the network, not just at stations and halts. [1: p61-62]

A few years prior to his appointment, a tiny 4-wheeled railmotor had been purchased. It was just 6ft high and originally had a 10hp petrol engine. Its capacity was only 10 passengers. Because of its diminutive size, it was only infrequently used to cover passenger duties. Its main functions were the carriage of post and serving as a maintenance vehicle. [1: p60] There is an excellent study of this railmotor sitting in Stranorlar Station which was taken by H.C. Casserley. Peterson et al reproduce it in their book. [1: p114]

The Donegal Railway Heritage Centre posted a picture of the railmotor on Facebook,a long with the description beneath. [3]

”Even if this original … Railmotor … was used spasmodically, it had yielded valuable experience. In 1926, with the balance sheet insisting on lowered operating costs, Forbes decided that the time was ripe to show that his railway could give as flexible a service as the road omnibuses and a faster one withal.” [1: p60, cf. p114] It was preserved in its final version and is now housed at the Ulster Transport Museum. [4]Co. Donegal Railways Railmotor No. 1, (c) Ulster Transport Museum, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. [5] The YouTube video below shows pictures of this railmotor in the museum at Cultra and a computer simulation of the railmotor in action on the Trainz simulation software produced by ‘ing4trainz’. [21]

Railmotors Nos. 2 & 3 which came from the DVLR. [22]

Railmotor No. 1 – A simulation by ING4Trainz. [22]

Given his experiences with the diminutive Railmotor No. 1, Forbes took a chance on a pair of Ford petrol-engined railcars. They came from the standard-gauge Derwent Valley Light Railway (DVLR) near York. They had been purchased by the DVLR in May 1924 at a total cost of £1070 with the intention of keeping the costs of transporting passengers to a minimum. “Each was built on a Ford 1‑ton truck chassis with bodywork by C.H. Roe Ltd of Leeds. Rated at 22hp, they weighed 2 tons 7 cwts, and were fitted with 17 seats.” [2] They were not popular with passengers on DVLR and were soon up for sale. Forbes bought them in June 1926 for a total of £480. By August 1926 the pair of railmotors were in Londonderry being converted to 3ft-gauge! [2]

There were a number of these railmotors, from a number of different manufacturers, in use on Light Railways around England at the time. A review of their use on the Colonel Stephens’ family of Light Railways can be found on the following link:

It is worth noting that Colonel Stephens took an interest in the two DVLR railmotors when they were put on the market. It seems likely that his expressed interest prevented Forbes negotiating a lower price for the vehicles. [1: p115]

These railmotors were usually used in pairs, back-to-back, but on the Co. Donegal Lines they were often used singly. (Although initially on the DVLR, they had been used as a pair, small turntables were installed at Layerthorpe and Skipwith in order to allow the units to be used singly.) Once available on the Co. Donegal Railways, these vehicles were “reasonably successful and lasted until 1934 when they were withdrawn from service.” [2]

Patterson et al. comment: “On the DVLR they had run in tandem, … but on the Donegal lines they were run separately. From the start, they operated regular passenger services: by modern standards they were noisy and subjected the passengers to considerable vibration, but their ability to stop anywhere was deservedly popular in a country of small farms and isolated cottages. Futhermore, the operating costs were only a fraction of those of orthodox steam trains:” [1: p60]  3.25d per mile rather than 11.25d per mile. It appears that Patterson et al were unaware of the use of small turntables on the DVLR.

I have managed to find one old photograph of this par of railmotors while in use on the DVLR at York – Layerthorpe Station. They look to be in as new condition. It has beenn impossible to establish the provenance of this photograph. [6]DVLR Railmotors in use at Layertorpe Sation near York. [6] These railmotors became Railmotors No. 2 and 3 on the County  Donegal railways.It is interesting that this photograph of one of the two railmotors (No. 2) after conversion for the Co. Donegal Railways is shown on the IRS website in an article from 1973 and it is credited to Dr. E.M. Patterson, [2] but the picture does not appear in the Book about the Co. Donegal Railways from Patterson et al. [1] … The changes are self-evident. The re-gauging to 3ft-gauge would have left the centre of gravity of the vehicle too high and as a result the body was lowered on the chassis which created a very different look. The rear wheels were almost hidden inside the bodywork.

Petrol Railmotors No. 2 and 3 were a success. Not an unqualified one, but nonetheless they resulted in a significant change of direction for the management of the Co. Donegal Railways. The future would be in the use of railcars rather than in the continued development of steam traction.

Patterson et al. comment that the alterations to the railmotors before they saw service on the Co. Donegal Railways took place at Dundalk rather than in the Northwest. They were ready for use in the Autumn of 1926. They did have some axle problems and during their lifetime saw their axles strengthened to be more in line with usual railway practice. [1: p117] But they served well until 1933 when they were beginning to be rather tired.Railcar/Railmotor No. 4 with the loco shed, water tower and carriage shed in Donegal Town, 1931. This picture was found on the Facebook group associated with the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre. (c) Sam Carse and held in the collection of the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre. [20]

Railmotor/Railcar No. 4 – a simulation produced by ING4Trainz. [22]

County Donegal Railcar/Railmotor No. 4, 16mm scale model for use on 45mm-gauge track, recently for sale on an internet-based sales platform. [18]

Co. Donegal Railmotor No. 4 – Model of the body shell which was for sale relatively recently on a internet-based sales platform. [15]

In 1928 they were joined by Railcar/Railmotor No. 4 which was also fueled by petrol. It was a significantly larger beast, based on a 30-cwt Ford chassis. Its size meant that it could not operate with a rigid chassis if it was to negotiate the tight curves on the network. It was therefore given a pony truck for the from axle. The vehicle was fully assembled by October 1928. Apart from some problems with its axles, the vehicle was again a success and lasted in service throughout the Second World War only being scrapped in 1947 after 19 years service. [1: p118]. There is a small scale drawing of this railmotor in Appendix 11 E.M. Patterson et al. [1: p173]

Appendix 8 of ‘The County Donegal Railways’ tells us that the petrol powered railmotors gradually gave way to diesel powered units but petrol continued to be a power source until the late 1940s. [1: p165]

We have already noted that Railmotor No. 1 was not scrapped but was eventually preserved at Cultra. Railmotors No. 2 and 3 were scrapped in 1934. They were replaced by two other units which were given the same designation. The new No. 2 was of a similar power to the one’s scrapped and arrived in 1934. It had a 22-hp engine but carried 30 rather than 17 people. It  came second-hand from the Castlederg & Victoria Bridge Tramway and remained in service until 1944 when it was converted to a trailer. It was not sold until 1961 when it was removed to Mountcharles in the South of Co. Donegal. The new No. 2 was a 24-seat railcar with a Fordson paraffin engine built in 1925 at Castlederg and referred to in the Wikipedia article about that line. [7] Although basic in design, that vehicle was capable of being driven from either end and the driver also sold the tickets.

I have not been able to find the drawings for the new No. 2, although I believe that they are included in E.M. Patterson’s book about the Castlederg and Victoria Bridge Tramway (C&VBT). [8] ING4Trainz do not appear to have produced a simulation for this railcar/railmotor either in its C&VBT guise or its CDR livery days. There is however a model of the railcar running on a layout which depicts the Castlederg terminus of the old Tramway which closed in 1933. It is a kit-built model from a Worsley Works kit, built by  Andy Cundick. [9],[10] The scale is OOn3.

Railmotor/Railcar No. 3 (new) which came from the D&BST – a simulation by ING4Trainz [22]

The new No. 3 came from the Dublin & Blessington Steam Tramway (D&BST) in 1934. It was also a larger vehicle than the old No. 3 with a passenger capacity of 40 and a 35-hp engine. The vehicle was built by the Drewry Car Co. Ltd. It arrived on the Dublin and Blessington Steam Tramway in 1926. It had two driving axles and two pony axles, and could be driven from either end. On that tramway it ran on a track gauge of 5ft 3in and so had to be converted to 3ft gauge. It operated successful on the Co. Donegal until 19….. when it was converted into a trailer and continued in active use until 19…….. “It is now the sole surviving vehicle from the old Dublin & Blessington Steam Tramway, residing at the transport museum at Cultra.” [11]

Shapways 3D-printed model of Drewry Railcar No. 3 [12]

A number of other pictures are available across the internet. There is an excellent study at [13] Some discussion about detailing of models of this vehicle can be found on the Irish Railway Modellers Forum. [14]

Railcar/Railmotor Trailer No. 5 ( and No. 2). A simulation by ING4Trainz. [22]

No. 5 in the series is a slight anomaly. The designation was given to the railmotor/railcar trailer which was purpose-built for that role. it had a 9ft wheelbase and was designed by the drawing office in Dundalk. A software simulation of the trailer has been produced by ING4Trainz. [22] The chassis was constructed by Knutsford Motors Ltd and the body by O’Doherty at Strabane. It weighed 3 ton 4.5-cwt and had sufficient room for 28 passengers. E.M. Patterson et al. say that the “trailer survived until the end of service on the CDR and was sold at auction in 1961 to Donegal Town football club, where its body was used as a cash-office. It was subsequently photographed in use as a holiday chalet in Rossnowlagh in 1965.” [1: p118] After an interesting ‘life’ out in the country it was brought down to Donegal Town Station and restored during the mid 1990s as part of exhibits at the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre. It was discovered by the local photographer, the late Conor Sinclair at Doochary, near Fintown. [16]

Trailer No. 5 in the garden of the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre. [17]

It was originally believed that Trailer No. 5 had been scrapped in the mid seventies but it had actually been towed to Doochary for use as a holiday home. It received a full body restoration at the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland premises in Whitehead, Antrim. This included new roof timbers and felting to make it watertight. The doors have been remade using the original patterns. The restoration effort was financed with the help of an Interreg IIIA European cross-border grant. [17]Trailer No. 5 in the process of being prepared to travel through the streets of Donegal on the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2019. [19]

Railmotor/Railcar no. 6. [23]

No. 6 was also a petrol railmotor, although exactly which vehicles were railmotors and which were railcars is difficult to determine as often all of them were referred to as railcars. No. 6 was built  by Great Northern and O’Doherty and came into use in 1930. It had a 32hp petrol engine and weighed 5-ton 11-cwt.  It cost £900 when new and carried a maximum of 32 seated passengers. It was rebuilt as a 4-wheeled trailer in 1945 and then sold into private owenrship in 1958 and removed to Inver. [1: p165]

Patterson et al., say that “it ran on a front radial truck, arranged for side-play of 4.5 in. to take the worst curves on the system and on a rear driving bogie. … It mainly served on the Glenties and Ballyshannon lines.” [1: p119]

Railmotors/Railcars No. 9 and 10. [23]

No. 6 was the last purpose built petrol-powered railmotor/ railcar. After it, only two further petrol powered vehicles were commissioned for the network. They were No. 9 and No.10, both were converted road vehicles. They had seen service for 3 years on the demanding roads of West Donegal and were converted at Stranolarto run on the 3ft rails of the Co. Donegal railways. They were similar in appearance to No. 4 and were powered by 36hp  Ford petrol engines. Both had a seating capacity of 20. [1: p121] No. p lasted 16 years in service and was scrapped in 1949. No. 10 was destroyed in a fire at Ballshannon shed in 1939. [1: p165] They were distinguished from No.4 by having a short body panel in front of the access doors. This can be seen on the ING4Trainz simulation above and in the picture immediately below.Railcar No 9 in the shops at Stranorlar. In 1930 the CDR acquired four Reo buses second hand from the GNR. A few years on the Donegal’s poor roads reduced them to wreaks but Henry Forbes had the two in the best condition converted to Railcars. They had 20-seat bodies and were powered by 36hp petrol engines. No.10 was destroyed in an accidental fire in 1939 but No. 9 seen here lasted until 1949. This picture was found on the Facebook group associated with the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre. (c) Sam Carse and held in the collection of the Donegal Railway Heritage Centre. [24]


  1. Edward M Patterson (original author), Joe Begley & Steve Flanders (authors of additional material in the Revised Edition); The County Donegal Railways; Colourpoint Books, Newtownards, Co. Down 2014. As noted in my first article about the Co. Donegal Railways this was to have been my holiday reading while walking different parts of the network, but 2020 has been a strange year!
  2. R.R. Darsley; The Derwent Valley Railway 60 Years On; The Industrial Railway Record No. 51, p129-146;  https//, accessed on 28th May 2020.
  3., accessed on 29th May 2020.
  4., accessed on 29th May 2020.
  5.,_Cultra,_County_Donega_Railways_Joint_Committee_Railcar_No_1_(03).jpg, accessd on 29th May 2020.
  6., accessed on 1st June 2020. I have tied to establish copyright ownership of the image but have not be successful. The source of the image on the forum is Peter Kable, Kiama, Australia. He is no longer active on the forum. The image was posted on 26th January 2011.
  7., accessed on 2nd June 2020.
  8. E.M. Patterson; The Castlederg and Victoria Bridge Tramway;  Colourpoint, 1998.
  9., accessed on 2nd June 2020.
  10., accessed on 2nd June 2020.
  11., accessed on 3rd June 2020.
  13., accessed on 3rd June 2020.
  14., accessed on 3rd June 2020.
  15., 3rd June 2020.
  16., accessed on 4th June 2020.
  17., accessed on 4th June 2020.
  18., accessed on 4th June 2020.
  19., accessed on 4th June 2020.
  20., accessed on 5th June 2020. cf.
  21., accessed on 12th June 2020.
  22., accessed on 5th June 2020.


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