All aboard for a great day out: The best railway attractions around Ireland

There are plenty of railway attractions around the country, from a new people-powered Velorail in Co Mayo, to Stradbally Woodland Railway and more

Get on yer ... rail bike? The old railway line through Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, last saw a passenger train in 1963, and before then had been the gateway for numerous people from the town to leave, with many emigrating for good.

Now, thanks to a group of people who wanted to bring some use back to the long-dormant tracks, people will once again leave the town by rail, but using their own muscle power. The Velorail Project, which opened in June, has drawn inspiration from other similar projects in Europe and the US.

The idea is simple. Rail-mounted bikes pedalled by up to four people travel along abandoned train lines, giving scenic routes a secondary lease of life and adding a new tourist attraction to the locality.

IRD Kiltimagh CLG, a local community organisation, is the promoter and operator of Velorail, which has refurbished the old station building to act as the attraction’s headquarters.

MGVELORAILTRAINS, Velorail, Mayo, Kiltimagh

IRD has also developed local office space, the town hall theatre, playgrounds and 35 units of social housing in the area, and has partnered with the Kiltimagh Tourism Association for Velorail.

Locally, the railway had been seen as a mixed blessing and become an “overgrown eyesore” after freight services ended in the mid-1970s, IRD chief executive Joe Kelly says.

Mayo County Council put IRD in charge of the project. The council was granted a licence to use the tracks by Irish Rail, and secured a development grant to clear and repair the trackwork, most of which was wildly overgrown, with some damaged sections needing replacement. Level crossing gates were repaired, and tarmac removed from the tracks.

The project now has access to 13km of track running north and south of the town, but every journey for the time being will head south for an 8km round-trip. The 16 bikes were imported, adapted and assembled by Cashels Engineering in Co Mayo. Small hydraulic turntables can turn the bikes 180 degrees for the return journey.

“Kiltimagh always had this notion of trying to turn something that’s an adversity into a positive for the area... a contributor for the people and the economy,” Kelly says.

“[We wanted] to turn the railway track, that has been negative in terms of carrying people out, in terms of it being an overgrown eyesore, into something positive.” Rail bikes for two to five people cost €40.

Kiltimagh is not the only place in Ireland to go for a railway day out. Here’s our list of some of the best railway attractions Ireland has to offer, from steam train rides to museums.

Cavan & Leitrim Railway

Cavan and Leitrim Railway steam locomotive Nancy Heritage Week

The original Cavan and Leitrim railway connected rural communities in the counties to the main line railways, as well as serving the coal mines at Arigna. Today, a short section of the line has been reopened for train rides by volunteers. Located next to the town’s Irish Rail station, it’s just a two-hour trip from Dublin Connolly via a regular train for a chance to see their recently restored steam locomotive Nancy at work, as well as getting a tour of other vehicular attractions including planes, vintage buses and other trains.

Dromod, Co Leitrim; Sat and Mon 11.30am-4.30pm, Sun 1pm-4.30pm; Adult €9, child €6;

Difflin Lake Railway

For something on the smaller side, the Difflin Lake Railway at Oakfield Park in Donegal ticks the box. With a track width of just 15 inches, this is the smallest public railway operating on the island of Ireland. The train travels through the beautifully landscaped grounds for 4.5km and takes 15 minutes. The railway has two diesel engines (one of which looks like Thomas the Tank Engine) and the newest steam engine in the country, the Duchess of Difflin, delivered from England in 2003, which runs on the last Sunday of every month. There are several other attractions at Oakfield including a playground, cafe, artworks and walks.

Raphoe, Co Donegal; hourly trains during summer; adult €7, child €5, plus general entry fee;

Donegal Railway Heritage Museum

An original Donegal steam locomotive, Drumboe, is now on display outside the museum in Donegal town. Photograph: Donegal Railway Heritage Centre

Donegal was once covered by hundreds of miles of narrow gauge railways but they are now long closed. Thankfully, the Donegal Railway Heritage Museum preserves the memories of the old lines. The biggest item on-site is an original Donegal steam locomotive, Drumboe, which was recently given a cosmetic overhaul in Northern Ireland and returned to the museum last year. They also have a coffee hut, original coaches, a miniature ride-on train, a model railway and the country’s only full-size interactive mock-up of a steam engine’s controls where kids of all ages can learn to be a train driver.

Donegal town; Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12pm-4pm; Adult €5, child €3, family €13;

Downpatrick & Co Down Railway

The Downpatrick and Co Down Railway runs steam and vintage diesel trains. Photograph: DCDR

This volunteer-run heritage railway is the only full-size one of its kind on the island. The volunteers started restoring the line in 1985 and now regularly operate steam and vintage diesel trains for the public along their tracks between Downpatrick and Inch Abbey, where visitors can alight from the train for refreshments. Their museum and carriage gallery add to a wonderful visitor experience. Uniquely, special footplate passes can be purchased during a visit allowing you the chance to get into the cab of one of their engines to see the crew at work while the train is moving.

Downpatrick, Co Down; every Sat & Sun until beginning of September, 12.30pm-5pm; adult £9.50, child £7.50, family £30;

Fintown Railway

The Fintown Railway’s claim to fame is that it operates an original Donegal railbus on part of the original route, skirting along the beautiful shores of Lough Finn. The track runs from the site of the old Fintown station building for nearly 5km and allows visitors to experience the most authentic recreation of Donegal rail travel possible during a 45-minute trip. Facilities on-site include free parking, toilets, playground, picnic area and refreshments. Bring cash as they have no card facilities.

An Mhuc Dhubh, Co Donegal; check website for opening hours; adult €8, child €5, family €24-€33;

Lartigue Monorail and Museum

Co Kerry was once home to one of the most unusual rail systems in the world, the Listowel-Ballybunion Railway monorail – there’s a Simpsons reference in here somewhere. This system was developed by French engineer Charles Lartigue and was the first commercially operating monorail in the world when it opened in 1888. Today in Listowel there is a museum in the restored goods shed telling the history of the line and a short demonstration track showing how the original trains ran and how they had to be evenly balanced on the line’s A-shaped rail frame.

Listowel, Co Kerry; daily 1pm-4.30pm until October 1st; adult €6, child €3, family €15;

Railway Preservation Society of Ireland and the Whitehead Railway Museum

The Railway Preservation Society of Ireland has been operating main line steam tours all over the island since 1964. It has its HQ in Whitehead, Co Antrim, where you will also find the Whitehead Railway Museum, and it frequently runs tours for the public using two of its steam locomotives, mostly out of Dublin. A full list of tours can be found on its website, and more are regularly announced. The museum displays the rest of the society’s engines and historic carriages and wagons as well as offering short train rides behind a former Guinness brewery steam loco.

Stradbally Woodland Railway

The Stradbally Woodland Railway was the first volunteer-run heritage railway on the island. It was established in 1969 with a steam engine purchased from Bord na Móna. It now regularly operates train rides on a 1km loop line throughout the year on the same estate that Electric Picnic is held on. Their steam locomotive, Róisín, is lovingly cared for by the Irish Steam Preservation Society volunteers who are always happy to answer questions and show visitors how the engine works, including its new carbon-free biofuel coal alternative. Tickets are valid all day for multiple train rides and there are light refreshments, toilet facilities and free parking.

Stradbally, Co Laois; Bank holiday weekends and other selected spring/summer dates; adult €8, child €4, family €20;

Ulster Transport Museum

A short train ride or drive from Belfast city centre, the Ulster Transport Museum is home to the biggest collection of trains on the island. The full-size exhibits include the biggest steam locomotive to ever run in Ireland, No 800 Maedb, as well as engines of all shapes and sizes from the island’s most famous railways. Get up close and even step on board some of these metal giants, learn something new about them and their history and check out the museum’s other exhibitions, including one on Titanic.

Holywood, Co Down; daily 10am-5pm; adult £11.50, child £7, family £24.50-£32;

Waterford & Suir Valley Railway

This line runs alongside the beautiful Waterford greenway for 12km from Kilmeaden station. The route is a former main line, and the narrow gauge trains first started running in 2001 as a social enterprise company. The line is mostly run by volunteers who maintain and drive the trains, with journeys taking between 40 and 50 minutes offering panoramic views of the River Suir. There’s free car parking at Kilmeaden station, along with a cafe, shop, model railway and history display boards.

Kilmeaden, Co Waterford; daily during summer; adults €10, child €5, family €24-€34;