Great Western Greenway: the long and winding road without a car in sight
Our Going Coastal series continues with a cycle along the Co Mayo route from Westport to Achill island, stopping off for a little sailing
Frank McNally at Mulranny during his Great Western Greenway cycle from Westport to Achill, along with Anna O’Connor, Mayo County Council’s walking and cycling officer. Photograph: Michael McLaughlin
The old Westport-Achill rail line was never entirely successful. This offshoot of the Midland Great Western Railway company covered one of the emptier sections of an underpopulated region. From the start, it was never expected to make a profit, being one of the Balfour Lines, a light-rail scheme so called after Ireland’s then chief secretary and designed to regenerate disadvantaged districts.
Many of its passengers were seasonal farm labourers, “tattie hokers” and others, commuting from Mayo to gather the harvests of England and Scotland. The poorest of the poor, they were not charged full fare on the Balfour trains. But even with their help, the Westport-Achill line never reached the passenger figures expected during its heyday.
The first trains travelled the single-gauge line in February 1894, when road travel was still an unattractive alternative. Within a few decades, however, that had changed. Unable to compete with tarmac, the railway finally waved the white flag in September 1937, after just 43 years.
Tracks lifted, the line lay dormant for generations and was reclaimed by nature and landowners. Many people bought their neighbouring sections from the rail company. Others took use of the land and gained squatters’ rights. Parts of the route remained in public ownership. But the ghost of the old railway lingered, if only in local memory.
The beginning of a new way
Then another era dawned, one in which ideas about public transport changed again. The remains of the railway line had for years been included in plans for off-road walking routes. Now the idea of a dedicated cycle path took off.
Tortuous negotiations with 161 landowners and other interests followed. Then in 2011, the central section of the old line – Newport to Mulranny – came back to life.
Ambitions were more modest than in 1894. Anna Connor, Mayo County Council’s walking development officer, who did much of the liaison with landowners, says they had hoped 50,000 people might use the route annually. Instead, in the first year, there were 145,000. The figure climbed to 175,00 last year, by which time the Great Western Greenway had expanded to the full 43.5km. This year, the figure looks like passing 200,000. Overcrowding is now an issue on some sections at peak times.
When I cycle it with Connor, I don’t need statistics to see that the Greenway is a roaring success. Not in the literal sense, obviously. Except for the Westport-Newport section, much of which runs close to the main road, the noisiest things on the route are bicycle bells and the chatter of young families. But the traffic is constant, and a surprising amount of it involves four-wheeled vehicles: bikes with trailers attached.
Connor has more figures that underline the project’s success. The Greenway has created 38 new jobs, she says, and is helping to secure 56 other existing ones. Moreover, the project continues to develop in ways that weren’t foreseen. There is now a gourmet trail, an adventure sports trail and a Greenway artists’ group.