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 your trip
Travel information and trip planning can be done online or over the phone directly with the websites of the two train companies. Both link to their sister bus companies.
- irishrail.ie is the website of Iarnród Éireann.
- Translink operate all public transport in Northern Ireland both buses and trains
Larger stations with ticket offices offer over the counter travel planning information during normal business hours.
In both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland regular train fares are available as 'single' (one way) or 'return' (roundtrip). In the Republic, returns can be specified for a same-day return, a return within five days or a return within one month, with a single ticket generally being only slightly cheaper than a return. In Northern Ireland returns are only available for a roundtrip on the same day.
Route or time specific discounts may be available for your journey: contact either Ianród Éireann or NI Railways or visit a staffed railway station for the most up to date advice.
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.
Lines & routes
Dublin to Belfast
Republic of Ireland
Dublin to Cork
Hourly service, serving Dublin Heuston, Kildare, Portarlington, Portlaoise, Ballybrophy, Templemore, Thurles, Limerick Junction, Charleville, Mallow and Cork Kent stations. Most services only serve 3/4 stations.
Dublin to Limerick
Dublin to Galway
Dublin to Tralee
Dublin to Waterford
Dublin to Wexford/Rosslare Europort
Dublin to Sligo
Dublin to Westport/Ballina
Limerick to Ballybrophy (via Nenagh) & Ennis
A limited commuter service around Limerick that will one day form part of a larger north-south rail route through the west of Ireland.
Limerick to Waterford/Rosslare
Serving Limerick Colbert, Limerick Junction, Tipperary, Cahir, Clonmel, Carrick-on-Suir, Waterford Plunkett, Campile, Ballycullane, Wellingtonbridge, Bridgetown, Rosslare Strand and Rosslare Europort stations.
Belfast to Londonderry/Derry & Portrush
Serving Belfast Great Victoria Street, Belfast Central, Antrim, Ballymena, Cullybackey, Balleymoney, Coleraine, Castlerock, Bellarena and Londonderry/Derry stations, with a shuttle and occasional direct trains splitting at Coleraine for Portrush. As even railway employees will advise you, the Ulsterbus Goldline coach between Belfast and Derry is significantly quicker than the train, although the journey is much more scenic as the railway follows the beautiful Antrim coast from Coleraine along the shore of Lough Foyle into Derry.
Belfast to Larne
Serving the suburban and rural communities north of Belfast to Larne Town and Larne Harbour for ferries to Scotland, although NI Railways, Ulsterbus, National Rail and Citylink route passengers between Northern Ireland and Scotland via the Belfast/Stranraer ferry.
Bangor to Belfast to Portadown
The most frequently served route in Northern Ireland, with normally hourly services between Bangor and Portadown, calling at suburban stations along the south shore of Belfast Lough (including Sydenham for Belfast City Airport) and stations south of Belfast including Lisburn 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 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 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.
As Ireland is an island, the only international rail connection is across the Irish border between Belfast and Dublin. A fixed link across the Irish Sea (similar to the Channel Tunnel) has been variously proposed since Victorian times and gotten a lot of press in the 2010s, but as of 2020 they're not even at the point of announcing which route such a crossing would take. For the time being, you'll have to take a boat or fly to get off the island, but thankfully there are integrated tickets for that as lined out below.
The following seaports offer easy train to ferry connections, with onward rail travel possible from their destinations.
- Dublin for ferries to Holyhead in Wales
- Larne for ferries to Cairnryan and Troon in Scotland
- Rosslare for ferries to Fishguard in Wales or Roscoff and Cherbourg in France
Only two stations are within walking distance of an airport:
- Farranfore is about one mile from Kerry Airport (KIR IATA), a small regional airport in the south-west.
- Sydenham is next to Belfast City Airport (BHD IATA). A free shuttle bus is available between the terminal to the station footbridge.
- Antrim Train station has a bus link to Belfast international airport (Ulsterbus 109A) check www.translink.co.uk for timetables
There are long-standing debates about how to link the island's busiest airport, Dublin Airport (DUB IATA) to the railway network (or perhaps an urban rail network), but as of 2020 you'll still have to use road transport to get there.
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.