The Galway to Clifden railway was in operation for forty years from 1895 to 1935, it was a single line of standard gauge, 5 feet 3 inches, with a total length of 48 miles 550 feet. The line ran through central Connemara and had seven stations, Moycullen, Ross, Oughterard, Maam Cross, Recess, Ballynahinch and Clifden. It took five years to construct and cost over £9,000 per mile.
Work started on the line in the winter of 1890, during a time of severe hardship in Connemara. A period of distress prevailed throughout the region due to bad weather, crop failure and falling agriculture prices. The people were in need of urgent assistance and the government considered the construction of a railway line was the ideal way of offered large-scale employment over a wide area. Up until this, railways were built by private enterprise and several attempts to construct a railway linking Galway with Clifden had failed due to lack of funds. However, by 1888, the government had decided that, in order to advance the rail network throughout the country it would offer grants for the construction of railways in remote, thinly populated districts that were considered commercially non-viable by the railway companies.
The Galway to Clifden line was constructed by the Midland Great Western Railway Company at a cost of £410,000, with an additional £40,000 going towards rolling stock. A large portion of the cost, £264,000, was granted as a free gift by government, under the Light Railway Act (1889). The company was to build, maintain and operate the line.
There were two engineers and three contractors involved in the construction of the line. The engineers, John Henry Ryan and Professor Edward Townsend, were both graduates of Trinity College Dublin and Townsend was Professor of Civil Engineering at Queen’s College Galway. The contractors were Robert Worthington, Charles Braddock and Travers H. Falkiner.
In order to bring employment quickly to the people, a provisional contract was entered into with Robert Worthington and preparatory works were started in autumn 1890. By January 1891 there were 500 men working along the line, at an average wage of twelve shillings a week. Over 200 of these took up lodgings in Clifden to avail of the work, while others were accommodated in wooden huts along the route. Each hut contained ten beds and a stove, and in some huts there were two men to a bed.
As the work progressed, the engineers became unhappy with the standard of Worthington’s work and he failed in his bid to win the final contract. The contract instead went to Charles Braddock. In April 1891, Braddock had notices in place along the line offering employment to all who would apply; by May he was employing almost a thousand men and boys. However, a year later, Braddock was running up serious debts throughout the county and failing to pay his workforce. There was a strike along the line that was only resolved with the promise of more regular wages. This, however, proved false and when Braddock was eventually declared bankrupt the MGWR Company was forced to take back the works in July 1892.
The contract was then passed to Travers H. Falkiner, who went on to complete the major part of the work. Under Falkiner, at the height of construction, over one thousand men were given regular employment along the line and the number rose to one thousand five hundred on occasion. Skilled men were brought in from the outside but the local workforce carried out the majority of the labouring work. Supply huts were erected in Ballinafad to serve the need of the workforce and shebeen houses were opened along the line. Falkiner, with the support of the local priest, tried to have the shebeens closed down, but failed.
By far the most interesting feature on the line was the viaduct across the Corrib River, the stacks of which can still be seen today. This was made up of three spans, each of 150 feet, with a lifting span of 21 feet, to allow for navigation of the river. There was just one tunnel on the line; this was a ‘cut and cover’ that carried Prospect Hill roadway over the railway. In all there were twenty-eight bridges, thirteen small accommodation bridges (bridges under 12 feet span) and numerous culverts to facilitate the sudden increase of water following heavy rainfall.
The seven stations all had passing places or loops, with up and down platforms, except at Ross and Clifden. Those stations situated close to Galway were faced with limestone taken from local quarries, while others further west were of red brick and roofed with red tiles. There were 18 gatekeeper cottages, situated at level crossings on public road.
The line from Galway to Oughterard was opened on 1 January 1895 and the rest of the line came into operation in July. As had been hoped, the opening of the line assisted the development of agriculture and fisheries in the region and contributed greatly to the economic stability of the area, particularly through its role in helping to establish Connemara as a tourist destination. The route was never profitable and in a bid to improve traffic on the line, the company embarked on a determined marketing campaign, advertising widely and offering packages that included tickets from many destinations in England with accommodation at their hotels at Recess and Clifden. For the home market, during the years 1903 to 1906, there were special tourist trains laid on during the summer months, offering day trips from the east coast to the west.
The world war and local wars brought a decline in tourism in the early decades of the 20th century. In 1924 a merger of railway companies brought the Galway to Clifden Railway into the hands of the Great Southern Railway Company and the line was reported to be in need of a good deal of repair. Traffic had dropped due to competition from private haulage companies and an increase in private car ownership. Despite local protests, the Great Southern Railway Company took the decision to close the line and the last train left Clifden on 27 April 1935.