As a keen cyclist, Sustrans Cycling Ranger, North Down Cycling Club and Athletics Club member I find the recent request from local campaigner Louis O'Keeffe that government explores feasibility of re-opening Railway Line between Conlig, Newtownards and Donaghadee for walking and cycling both innovative and welcome.
At a recently convened meeting with Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy MLA to discuss the idea on Wednesday 4 September 2013 we received a positive response with willingness to explore the project via a multi-agency meeting which is currently being arranged.
Re-opening the Railway Line could deliver amazing benefits enabling people to walk, run or cycle across scenic County Down Countryside benefitting local communities via the health benefits derived and the economy with local cafes now booming in Comber following opening of the Comber Greenway.
Associated with the idea is safeguarding all the Stone bridges along course of Newtownards to Donaghadee Railway Line as Scheduled Monuments, especially the endangered Stone Bridge beside the Green Road, Conlig.
The Stonebridge in Conlig is a valuable historic asset and must be protected as one part of Northern Ireland's rich Railway Heritage. Together with other historic elements along disused Railway lines they reflect our Industrial Heritage and should be cherished and enjoyed by future generations.
I look forward to working with Louis O'Keeffe to progress the ideas along with the Mayor of Ards and other parties. Working as One we can deliver real positive change for everyone.
Belfast and County Down Railway Company opened the line. A Construction Company 'Edwards' building it. Opened: 3rd June 1861 and Closed: 24th April 1950. Owned then by: Ulster Transport Authority.
Length: Site of old Comber Station to site of old Newtownards Station (The College): 8.5 km / 5.3 miles approx. Ards Station to site of the old Donaghadee Station (Youth Centre): 13.4 km / 8.3 miles approx. Total = 21.9 km / 13.6 miles
This train line took the average travel time on opening from 5 - 6 hrs from Donaghadee to Belfast, by horse and cart, to less than an hour via Stream Train (Ards Council publication document says 40mins). Later an experimental Diesel Electric Train made by Harland and Wolff also served the line too.
Building wise only a Goods Shed at the site of Comber Train Station remains preserved as Comber Fire Station and the Station Masters House at Ballygrainey (privately owned) but there were Stations at Newtownards, Donaghadee, Ballygrainey and also Conlig for a short time (19th Century only). A Halt on the Millisle Road was also used and numerous Stone bridges were employed - foot, over, vehicle but only a few Stone Bridges remain. All due to the dismantling of the line and subsequent enterprise both public and private along the 22 km / 13 and a half mile stretch of line.
Of the remaining structures only a few pieces have been listed (two bridges near Donaghadee) though there is some hope this may soon change!
The Stonebridge Project that's just being set up hopes to do three things to transform the line that some seem to want made redundant:
Heath - to enable people to cycle walk or for those with limited mobility, to have a safe environment for travel, discovery or enjoyment of the countryside areas in which it travels.
Heritage - to enable people to access this important piece of our heritage, have it saved, conserved and also put to a good public use again.
Habitat - to ironically provide a habitat for the plants and animals that would have been abundant around many parts of the line when it was first opened and for people to have access to this fast disappearing part of our wee country. A life line if you like for wildlife.
First steps ask for the listing of all remaining heritage. Eleven bridges so far that need this protection as Scheduled Monuments. Though immediate statutory protection I feel is needed on three which are in danger. Green Road, Ballycrochan and Ballyrickard Bridge, Moat Road, Comber.
More information can be found at the Stonebridges Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/stonebridge2013?fref=ts