Ireland's rail network covers most of the island, and reaches almost all the major cities and towns. The density of railway services is somewhat lower than in other European countries, due to lower population densities, and a lack of a connection to the greater European network, but most of the island is covered, with the exception of the North-West. Rail services are generally centred on the two biggest cities on the island, Dublin and Belfast.
Although hundreds of miles of rural lines were closed during the twentieth century, investment in passenger rail has since soared on both sides of the border, and passenger numbers have been rising. Prices and service levels are comparable to other, similar lines around Western Europe, although journey times can be relatively long as speeds are low and nothing approaching true high-speed rail in the continental European sense is even on the horizon. No trains but a rather small set of suburban services around Dublin run on electric power as none of the intercity lines are electrified, an unusual situation for Europe.
As Ireland is often called "England's first colony", the history of rail travel on the Emerald Isle is tied to the history of rail transport in England, the motherland of railways. However, being a largely rural and - throughout the 19th century - neglected area, the network was never as dense as that of many European countries, including England. While there were several rail gauges in Great Britain prior to the standardization, they eventually converged on 1435 mm as the widely acknowledged "standard gauge", however, Ireland as an island disconnected from any other railway network adopted 1600 mm gauge by a decision of Parliament in Westminster. As the fight for independence somewhat damaged the rail infrastructure and Ireland was a poor country on the periphery of Europe for much of the 20th century, the situation has not markedly improved. However, in the 21st century there has been some effort to improve services in Ireland's major urban areas, particularly in and around Dublin. There have also been some efforts to improve trains between Belfast and Dublin, the two biggest cities on the island and a symbol of peace and reconciliation after the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland. In line with much of the Anglosphere but unlike mainland Europe, electrification is a rare sight on Irish rail lines and basically only exists for a handful of commuter lines around Dublin. Speeds also never exceed 160 km/h (99 mph) and despite various proposals to change either of those things, it seems unlikely as of 2020.
Rail services in Ireland are provided by Iarnród Éireann in the Republic of Ireland and by NI Railways in Northern Ireland. They share not only a mainline connection (between Belfast and Dublin) but also a 1600mm (5' 3") gauge (the distance between the two rails that form the track) that is rare in the world.
Republic of Ireland
Iarnród Éireann (meaning in English Irish Rail, or more literally Irish Iron-Road) is the national rail operator of the Republic of Ireland. It is a subsidiary of Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ), a state-owned holding company that also controls the public bus system of Dublin and Bus Éireann, the principal long distance coach operator of the Republic of Ireland. However, through ticketing between bus and rail services is generally not available.
In a similar manner to Iarnród Éireann in the Republic, NI Railways is the state owned rail operator of Northern Ireland. NIR is a subsidiary of Translink, whose parent company is the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company (NITHCo), and is thus the only remaining state owned train operator in the United Kingdom. Translink also operates all public buses in Northern Ireland.
Planning: timetables and tickets
Use these pages for outline planning of your itinerary, but you need to study the relevant transport websites for timetables, fares and deals, online tickets, and travel disruptions. The main ones are:
- - Irish Rail or Iarnród Éireann for all trains within the Republic, including the Dublin-Belfast train and DART trains in the Dublin area.
- - Translink for all public transport in Northern Ireland, both bus and train, including cross-border services.
- - There is no one-stop site for buses in the Republic. Bus Éireann, which includes Expressway, has most routes; their services radiate from Dublin Busáras.
- - There are competitors on many inter-city routes, eg Dublin Coach and JJ Kavanagh, see individual cities' "Get in". They don't use Busáras, so stops and starting points vary.
- - TFI journey planner covers all companies in RoI, and is your best source of info on rail-bus connections, and on Local Link buses, which wind through the back lanes and for some places are the only public transport. TFI quote fares but don't sell tickets.
- By boat: if you arrive by ferry always look for "rail & sail" through tickets. These are considerably cheaper than buying separate train and ferry tickets, and take care of the connection. You should be able to buy a through-ticket from any mainline station in Great Britain to Belfast or Dublin. All the GB ferry ports have railway services except Cairnryan (north of Stranraer, for Belfast and Larne): rail passengers change at Ayr for the through-bus.
These are very simple in 2021, as Covid means that incentives and discount fares are withdrawn, and capacity is reduced so trains may book out.
In RoI there is no price difference between a return ticket and buying two singles. Suppose you aim to travel from Dublin to Kilkenny (good decision!), as of July 2021 you'd pay:
- - "Low" fare booked more than 48 hours in advance, and changeable within that period: €12.99 single
- - " Semi-flexible" fare booked and changeable more than 24 hours in advance: €13.99 single
- - "Flexible" fare for immediate travel, though changeable up to an hour in advance: €14.49 single
Trains and fares in this example are from Dublin Heuston. From city centre you need to take the tram out to Heuston, which costs €2.10. Or you can have your ticket made out from Dublin Connolly in city centre, which will include the tram fare, but you only save about 60c by doing so.
So there's not much in the price, and it doesn't matter whether you travel on- or off-peak, or whether you day-trip or have an extended stay. You need to weigh up flexibility (what time will your flight really land?) versus ensuring you get aboard a train that may book out. The fares for buses are pretty similar.
Booking is only available for inter-city trains, up to 90 days in advance. Commuter and DART trains may also run the same route: fares are identical but there's no booking.
In Northern Ireland it's even simpler. In July 2021 a trip from Belfast to Londonderry is £13 single by train or bus, and no returns are sold.
Republic of Ireland
- One way web fares are online-only advance purchase tickets. Available to everyone for travel on specified trains, they offer significant discounts on regular fares.
- The Student TravelCard costs €12 per annum and offers discounts of up to 40% on Iarnród Éireann services.
- One Day Family Tickets allow one or two adults and up to four children under 16 years of age to travel together for less than the total cost of individual tickets. Not valid on Fridays or Sundays.
- 1/3 off day returns after 09:30 NI Railways has, for some time, offered a discount of one third of day return tickets purchased after 09:30, although this offer may be withdrawn without notice.
- Family & Friends Day Ticket Unlimited family travel by bus and rail. Valid for 2 adults and up to 4 children. Minimum 1 adult and 1 child. £22.
- Sunday Day Tracker go anywhere on Sundays for £8.
Weekly or monthly tickets can be purchased online or at a station for most routes in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Primarily for commuters, these may be of use for longer-term visitors to Ireland who plan to make the same journey every day.
The 'InterRail Global Pass' or 'InterRail One Country Ireland Pass' are both valid on all trains in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. They also offer a discount of approximately 30% on most ferry routes to the United Kingdom.
- I-link cards This ticket offered unlimited travel on all scheduled rail and bus services in Northern Ireland operated by NI Railways, Metro and Ulsterbus. Choose 1 day, 1 week or 1 month. the zone 4 card is for the whole of Northern Ireland and can be used on any train or bus anywhere in Northern Ireland.
Using the train
Few railway stations in Ireland are particularly big, with most outside the capitals having just two platforms, so locating and boarding your train is usually easy and stress free. Larger stations will have electronic departure screens listing trains in order of departure, their platform, any delay, and calling points. Platforms may not be announced until ten minutes before the train is due to depart from a terminus and can subsequently change if the train is delayed. Listen out for audio announcements. Platform staff can also advise where to stand if you are travelling with a bicycle.
At smaller stations without electronic displays, signs will indicate which platform to wait on for your destination station.
Most trains have modern push-button doors that close automatically before departure. However a number of older trains with passenger-operated slam doors still run on some routes. If you are the last person to board or alight through a manually operated door (which can be opened by pushing down on the handle on the outside of the train), don't forget to close it behind you.
Seat reservations are marked either with paper tags on the headrest or an electronic display above the window.
Keep your ticket and any pass with you when you move about the train as you may be asked to show it. Station stops are normally announced over the public address system or on scrolling electronic displays in the carriage.
Cities and Ports of Entry
Also refer to individual city "Get in" sections for more detail. Irish railway stations are small by European and British standards, easy to navigate, and fairly central in town. This section describes all the ports of entry into the Republic and Northern Ireland because they involve a change of transport mode. Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Limerick stations have a couple of points to be aware of. The terminus stations of Waterford, Galway, Westport and Sligo pose no problems and need no further description here. In summary:
- - Dublin Airport (DUB IATA) is the Republic's main arrival point. It has no railway (and plans to link it are far from completion), but there's a choice of buses to city centre, including the railway stations. Direct buses run from the airport to all major cities, including Belfast and Derry.
- - Dublin ferry port is 2 km east of city centre, take the shuttle bus to Busáras the main bus station. This is next to Connolly railway station.
- - Connolly railway station has trains from Belfast via Newry and Drogheda, from Sligo via Longford, from Rosslare ferry port via Wexford and Wicklow, and DART commuter trains.
- - Heuston railway station is 4 km west, most conveniently reached by Luas tram. It has trains from Waterford, Cork, Tralee, Limerick, Galway and Westport, with midland stops described below. If you get your ticket made out from Dublin Connolly this includes the tram and saves 50c over separate fares.
- - Belfast City Airport (BHD IATA) is 5 km east of the city. Usually you take the bus to city centre, which passes Lanyon Place the main railway station. You could also walk or take the free shuttle bus to Sydenham station, which has suburban trains east to Bangor and west to all Belfast stations, Lisburn and Portadown.
- - Belfast International Airport (BFS IATA) is 35 km west of the city, with an airport bus. But for Coleraine or Derry take Bus 109A to Antrim railway station, and there's a cheap deal for rail passengers.
- - Belfast ferry port is 10 km north of city centre, take the shuttle bus to Europa bus station, which is next to Great Victoria Street railway station.
- - Lanyon Place is the main station, 1 km east of the centre. All trains run here.
- - Great Victoria Street is in city centre next to Europa main bus station. All trains run here except the Belfast - Dublin service.
- - Larne ferry port has trains via Carrickfergus to Belfast.
- Rosslare ferry port has trains to Dublin Connolly via Wexford, Wicklow and Bray. The line to Waterford has been axed, take Bus 40 which trundles the width of Ireland to Cork, Killarney and Tralee.
- - Cork Airport (ORK IATA) is 8 km south of the city, with buses to the centre.
- - Cobh is the port for Cork; it has few ferries but lots of cruise ships. The railway station is next to the quay, with frequent suburban trains to the city.
- - Suburban trains also run to Midleton (for Jameson Distillery) and Mallow (for Cork racecourse). For Mallow you can also take mainline trains towards Dublin for the same fare.
- Kerry Airport (KIR IATA) is midway between Tralee and Killarney. There's a bus, or walk 2 km to Farranfore station for trains.
- Shannon Airport (SNN IATA) is 26 km west of Limerick, take the bus to Limerick Colbert bus and railway station.
- - to repeat, it's Limerick Colbert for the city. Limerick Junction is 30 km away east on the edge of Tipperary town.
- Knock Airport (NOC IATA) is 11 km from the railway stations at Claremorris and Ballyhaunis, both on the Dublin-Athlone-Westport line. And as for the sparse bus service, it'll be a miracle if one happens to come when you need it . . .
- Derry Airport (LDY IATA) is within walking distance of the main road, with buses to the city. Derry railway station is across the river 1 km south of the historic city centre.
These radiate from Dublin and Belfast, with only a few side lines or cross-country routes, so it's not so much a network as a star-burst. Frequencies stated are for weekday services - there's fewer on Sunday - and relate to the terminus stations. Trains might flash through a small town hourly but with only a couple per day that stop.
From Dublin Heuston
To Limerick hourly, 2 hours, from Heuston via Newbridge, Kildare, Monasterevin, Portarlington, Portlaoise, Ballybrophy, Templemore, Thurles and Limerick Junction (where you may have to change) to Limerick Colbert.
To Tralee there's one direct service per day, but with connections every couple of hours. The journey is four hours from Heuston via Portlaoise, Thurles, Limerick Junction, Charleville, Mallow (where you usually change), Banteer, Millstreet, Rathmore, Killarney and Farranfore to Tralee Casement.
To Westport and Ballina four a day, 3 hr 30 min from Heuston via Newbridge, Kildare, Tullamore, Clara, Athlone (where you may have to change), Roscommon, Castlerea, Ballyhaunis, Claremorris, Manulla Junction, Castlebar and Westport. A connecting train at Manulla Junction runs via Foxford to Ballina.
From Dublin Connolly
To Belfast 8 per day, two hours from Connolly via Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry and Portadown to Belfast Lanyon Place. There are no border checks, long may this remain so, but it's your responsibility to ensure that your documents are valid.
To Rosslare every couple of hours timed for the ferries, 3 hr from Connolly via Dublin Pearse, Dún Laoghaire, Bray, Greystones, Wicklow Town, Rathdrum, Arklow, Gorey, Enniscorthy, Wexford, Rosslare Strand and Rosslare Europort.
DART suburban trains also run along the coast to Connolly and don't serve Heuston. See Dublin#Get around: you might use them to explore the coast south to Dún Laoghaire, Dalkey and Bray, or north to Malahide and Howth.
Other RoI routes
Limerick - Ballybrophy trundles twice a day from Colbert station via Nenagh and Roscrea to Ballybrophy where it connects with the Dublin Heuston trains. Don't use this route for Dublin-Limerick, it's faster and more reliable to travel via Limerick Junction.
All trains use Lanyon Place east side of the city. All except the Dublin trains stop at Great Victoria Street.
To Dublin via Portadown and Newry, see Dublin Connolly above.
To Derry hourly, two hours from Great Victoria Street and Lanyon Place, Newtownabbey Mossley West, Antrim, Ballymena, Cullybackey, Ballymoney, Coleraine, Castlerock and Bellarena to Derry. Change at Coleraine for the connecting train to Ulster University and Portrush.
Bangor cross-city to Portadown runs every 30 min from Bangor to Holywood, Sydenham (for City airport), all Belfast stations including Lanyon Place and Great Victoria Street, then out to Lisburn, Lurgan and Portadown.
The Enterprise, along with the Dublin - Cork intercity route, is Ireland's flagship train, having operated on and off since 1947. It provides service approximately once every two hours throughout the day between the two capital cities of Dublin and Belfast, calling en route at Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry, and Portadown. Due to a maximum speed of just 90 mph (140 km/h) for just some of the route, the journey takes between 1 hr 55 min and 2 hr 15 min depending on the number of intermediate stops, so is not much faster than the equivalent journey by car or coach.
The Enterprise offers "Standard" and "First Plus" seated accommodation, with at seat service in First Plus and a walk up bar counter in standard class. The train is locomotive hauled, with rakes of air conditioned carriages derived from the design of those used by the Eurostar between Great Britain and France and Belgium. The train is jointly owned and operated by IÉ and NIR, who have both expressed their intentions to eventually offer an hourly service between the two cities.
Republic of Ireland
Iarnród Éireann's older fleets of locomotive hauled passenger coaches have gradually given way to a newer generation of modern locomotive hauled carriages (Dublin - Cork) and diesel multiple units (all other routes). These trains offer two classes of accommodation with air conditioning, electronic seat reservations and on board catering. They're used on longer distance routes in and out of Dublin. The regional Intercity route between Limerick and Rosslare is normally operated by Commuter railcars.
Commuter trains are diesel multiple units used on shorter and busier radial routes around major cities, with small networks growing around Cork and Limerick in addition to the established hub of Dublin.
The DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) is the only electric mainline railway in Ireland, with a single north-south line running through Dublin connecting suburban communities along the coast with the city centre.
Following a major period of investment, the bulk of NI Railways service is provided by a modern fleet of three carriage diesel railcars. These offer comfortable air conditioned accommodation on most routes.
Apart from the Enterprise, no trains in Northern Ireland offer first class.
Ireland's railways were built in the Victorian age like Great Britain's, but the unique gauge and small network means there isn't the same wealth of heritage. There are no tourist trains, and Britannia or Tornado are never going to halt with a gush of steam at Drogheda, or disgorge 50 blazers and straw hats at Killarney. Pity. Many local museums have a section depicting their railway, since it was part of the town's development. The only working "heritage" line in the Republic is modern, a narrow-gauge railway laid over an abandoned standard-gauge track-bed near Waterford. There are a few small railway museums, sometimes in steam, for instance at Dromod and Castlerea. Model railways run at Malahide near Dublin and Clonakilty in County Cork.
It can be no accident that the best displays are in Northern Ireland. When loyalists wave the Union flag, they assert their British birthright to be obsessive about ramshackle old steam locomotives. The Ulster Transport Museum in Holywood is a fine example (and you can get there by train, heading from Belfast to Bangor, get off at Cultra). There are two tracks you can ride: from Bushmills to Giant's Causeway, and from Downpatrick to the ruined abbey. One railway enthusiast spent much money and effort on preserving the Downpatrick locos, as he'd been assured (correctly) that they were standard gauge. It was some years before he twigged that they were Irish standard gauge and couldn't run on his British heritage track.
Travelling by train in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is remarkably safe as there is little theft on board a train. Security alerts may occasionally delay or cancel a train but these are becoming less and less frequent and there have been no actual attacks of any kind on the railways for many years.
Many lines are quite exposed and tend to cross large flat areas of land with little indication from afar that there is a railway line, therefore people should take care when walking, cycling or driving near railway lines. There are both automatic and unmanned level crossings. Automatic level crossings will have flashing lights and a siren and barriers to prevent cars from trying to drive over the tracks in front of an oncoming train. Take extra care if using unmanned crossings, and open both gates either side first before driving through so that you do not have to stop the car on the tracks to open the next gate; there have been numerous fatalities from people using unmanned crossings, so be aware of your surroundings and listen out for trains, but they are usually noisy diesel trains anyway.