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16 October 2014
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Larne -
Short Sea Crossing

Larne is well known as the Irish port for the Short Sea Crossing to Scotland.

P&O Superstar Express Ferry

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by Ian Sinclair

Larne is well known as the Irish port for the Short Sea Crossing to Scotland. However for much of the 19th century it competed for that role, and the prestigious mail contract, with Donaghadee. Services between Larne and Stranraer and between Donaghadee and Portpatrick were sporadic.

By the second half of the century it was vital that the Short Sea Crossing port be connected to Belfast by rail. The Belfast and County Down Railway opened its Donaghadee line in 1861 and the Carrickfergus and Larne Railway (CLR) opened the following year. However the cross-channel steamer between Larne and Stranraer was withdrawn in 1863. For the next decade the line between the town and harbour stations lay largely unused. Then, in 1872, the Larne and Stranraer Steamboat Company started regular sailings with its steamer Princess Louise.

At Carrickfergus the CLR connected with the Belfast and Ballymena Railway's line to Belfast (York Road). The BBR was later renamed Belfast and Northern Counties Railway (BNCR). It eventually leased the CLR and later still bought it. In 1903 the BNCR was acquired by the Midland Railway Company (of England) and run by its Northern Counties Committee. With the grouping of the numerous railways in Great Britain into four large undertakings in 1923, the NCC and the cross-channel steamer found itself part of the world's largest public utility company, the London Midland and Scottish Railway.

Listen to transport historian Dr. D.B. McNeill talk about the Midland Railway takeover of the BNCR in 1903

Larne was also served by a second railway, the Ballymena and Larne which opened in 1878. Unlike the standard gauge (five feet three inches) line to Belfast it was built as a narrow gauge (three feet) line. It too later became part of the BNCR. Boat trains ran to Larne Harbour station from Ballymena as well as Belfast. Those from Ballymena were, at the time, the most comfortable and up to date trains of any Irish narrow gauge railway. However passenger services were withdrawn in 1932 and replaced by a direct service on the standard gauge route to Londonderry via Greenisland. This service ended in 1958.

Listen to D.B. McNeill recall his first journey to London via Larne - Stranraer

The LMS offered a truly integrated transport service. They operated trains, busses (until they were taken over by the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board), air services and ferries. Larne - Stranraer was the route favoured by most businessmen and politicians travelling to and from London. At Stranraer trains with sleeping accommodation met the ships. So slick was the LMS operation that connecting times between trains and ships could be under ten minutes!

Listen to retired Belfast travel agent Billy McCormick talk about the main users of the Larne - Stranraer crossing.

Sir John Magill's Last Journey, by Freeman Wills Crofts, was first published in 1930. This latest reprint is by House of Stratus, 2000
Sir John Magill's Last Journey,
reprinted 2000 by House of Stratus

In 1930 Freeman Wills Crofts, a former engineer with the NCC and a popular author of detective fiction, wrote Sir John Magill's Last Journey. It was partly set on the sleeper from London to Stranraer with much of the action based around Larne. It centred on the murder of Sir John Magill, a retired Northern Irish MP.

Listen to a brief extract from Sir John Magill's Last Journey

The steamers, since the introduction of regular sailings in 1872, were mostly named after Princesses - Louise, Beatrice, Margaret, Maud, May and the most infamous of all, Victoria. There were in fact four Princess Victorias on the route. The third of that name was a purpose built drive-on drive-off car ferry, the first in the UK. It entered service in July 1939 but was requisitioned by the Admiralty just five months later, only to be sunk by an enemy mine in May 1940. In 1944 the LMS gave the go-ahead for a replacement vessel, also to be known as Princess Victoria. It entered service in 1947.

The ill-fated Princess Victoria
The ill-fated Princess Victoria

Nationalisation of railways in Great Britain in 1948 meant that the steamers and, for a brief period, Larne's railways became part of British Railways. The former LMS lines in Northern Ireland passed to the Ulster Transport Authority in 1949. The narrow gauge line, which had carried goods only for many years, closed in 1950, although it had been cut back to Ballyclare since 1940. Boat trains still ran to Belfast.

On 31st January 1953 Northern Ireland was stunned to learn that the Princess Victoria was floundering on its voyage from Stranraer. The car doors gave way in the severe storm allowing the vessel to flood. It sank with the loss of 134 lives. Only 42 survived.

Click here to listen to Larne historian Liam Kelly describe the Princess Victoria disaster

The Princess Victoria Memorial on Chaine Road in Larne
The Princess Victoria Memorial on Chaine Road in Larne


Listen to Patricia Beattie (whose father managed the railway-owned Laharna Hotel) describe the town's sense of loss


This model of the  Princess Victoria is in the Mayor's Parlour at Larne Town Hall
A Model of the Princess Victoria

A brochure cover from the early 1960s advertising the Caledonian Princess on the Stranraer crossing
Promotional material for the
Caledonian Princess

It wasn't until 1961 that a new purpose built replacement vessel, Caledonia Princess, entered service and the fortunes of the Larne - Stranraer route took a turn for the better. Services were augmented by various other ships and in 1967 another purpose built vessel, Antrim Princess, was introduced. She was the company's first drive-through ship.

Some other well-known vessels to operate the Larne - Stranraer service over the past 30 years include Ailsa Princess (the replacement for Caledonia Princess), Darnia, Ulidia, Dalriada, Galloway Princess (later renamed Stena Galloway), St David (Stena Caledonia) and St Christopher (Stena Antrim). Other ferries were chartered from other companies for the route, examples being Stena Nordica and Stena Timer - perhaps an indicator of the future (and final) operators of the route!

Galloway Princess was one of the last vessels to work the Larne - Stranraer service.
Galloway Princess on the Larne - Stranraer crossing in the mid-1980s
Photograph taken by Ray Ward.

Bardic Ferry, one of the early vessels on the Larne - Cairnryan route
Bardic Ferry
Competition on the Short Sea Crossing arrived in 1973 when the Atlantic Steam Navigation Company opened an even shorter route from Larne to the former naval port at Cairnryan using the Ionic Ferry. It was soon operated under the name Townsend Thoresen. In the late 1980s this was changed to the name of its parent company, P&O. Other vessels which served on this route include Bardic Ferry, Doric Ferry, Europic Ferry, various Free Enterprise ships, Pride of Rathlin, Pride of Ailsa, European Causeway and European Highlander.

European Causeway is one of the newest vessels on the Larne - Cairnryan route
One of P&O's modern ferries, European Causeway,
on the Larne - Cairnryan crossing

In 1984 Sealink, the shipping division of British Rail, was sold to Sea Containers. There was a further change of ownership in 1990 when Stena Line took over. Privatisation of the ferry service and a reduction in co-ordination of services, along with the growth in private car use and the arrival of the "budget" airlines, meant a curtailment in rail connections at Stranraer. The once busy night sleeper to London was withdrawn in 1990, the through daytime service disappearing a few years earlier.

Listen to Billy McCormick explain the reasons for the loss of the through rail service to London


From 1992 there was further competition from their former owners, Sea Containers. This was the Seacat, a high speed catamaran service which operated to Stranraer from the centre of Belfast. (Seacat later dropped Stranraer in favour of Troon.) Stena's response was to switch their operation from Larne to Belfast in 1995 and introduce their own high speed vessel, the much larger Stena Voyager, the following year. P&O responded to Seacat by introducing the summers-only high speed Jetliner and later the SuperStar Express on their Cairnryan service.

Larne's high speed ferry on the Short Sea Crossing - P&O's SuperStar Express
Larne's high speed ferry on the Short Sea Crossing - P&O's SuperStar Express

With Stena Line's move to Belfast in 1994, the boat train was withdrawn and one hundred and twenty years of formal rail and sea connections at Larne Harbour came to an end. Indeed the future of rail services to Larne presently remains in the balance. Meanwhile proposals by Stena to re-establish the Larne - Stranraer connection in 2000 using conventional ferries did not materialise. Indeed, in 2003 Stena Line announced that they were abandoning Stranraer in favour of Cairnryan.

P&O continue to operate the Short Sea Crossing from Larne to Cairnryan.

Other sites with information on Larne Harbour and the Short Sea Crossing include...

Port of Larne website

Larne Ferry Web

To view a fine collection of ferry photographs belonging to Ray Ward visit his 'Photo Transport' site.

(The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.)

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