Brief Background Information
Northern Ireland Railways is the subsidiary of Translink that operates rail services in Northern Ireland. It has its roots in the Ulster Transport Authority which was the precursor to today’s Translink, which currently runs bus and rail operations in NI.
NIR services are of a quasi intercity-commuter type. This is because due to NI’s relatively small size, most major towns are 2-3 hours away from Belfast (at least by road), and Belfast’s own comparatively small size for a “capital city” diminishes the catchment area and potential for a dedicated commuter service like the London Overground or KTM Komuter. This means that all services serve both an intercity and commuter function, making intercity travel highly convenient by rail, provided the trains do actually go where you want to go.
Belfast is served by 4 main stations: Great Victoria Street, City Hospital, Botanic, and Belfast Central. All services call at these stops, but only Great Victoria Street and Belfast Central are proper interchange stations.
Great Victoria Street: Centrally located, a 10 minutes-walk from the city centre, and termini for all NIR services except the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise service. Connected to the Europa Bus Centre for onward bus connections.
Belfast Central: Named “Central” by virtue of it being above the former trackbed of the Belfast Central Railway, and not because it is centrally located. All train services pass through here, including the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise service which terminates here. Presentation of a valid rail ticket allows free travel on all Metro bus services from Central station to the city centre.
City Hospital: Unstaffed halt serving the Belfast City Hospital and surrounding areas. Entrance may be hard to find, though is also a relatively convenient halt as all intercity services do stop here except for the Enterprise.
Botanic: Staffed train halt located in the Botanic area. Serves the Queen’s Quarter so alight here for Queen’s University Belfast, though if you’re a medical student and need to get to the MBC, City Hospital halt is nearer. All services stop here except for the Enterprise.
The NI rail network is un-electrified, hence all rolling stocks run on diesel. Passenger services are fully operated by CAF-built Diesel Multiple Units, designated the Class 3000s and Class 4000s. Both are largely identical with the only difference being that the Class 3000s have a louder engine noise and the smell of diesel permeates into the cabin. Seating in both classes are identical, and are of an intercity type. Comfort is decent and trains are generally clean, though the toilets suffer from the same problem as Irish and British trains in that they smell.
The Enterprise service uses its own specialised rolling stock. They are locomotive-drawn, and were made by De Dietrich. They feature their own specialised branding as this is the flagship service jointly run by Irish Rail and NIR. Seats are more comfortable than the standard NIR trains though not by a large margin.
Train fares in NI are standardised, and hence not subject to fluctuations like in Great Britain. This makes them relatively affordable, and on Sundays there is an unlimited ticket costing only GBP 8++. Tickets can be purchased from ticket counters or from onboard conductors. Enterprise tickets can be purchased online, or from the counter on the day of travel. Enterprise tickets are, however, subject to price fluctuations and will cost more than regular NIR tickets.
Compared to the rest of the UK, the NIR network is comparatively underdeveloped. The western portion of the province/region is not served by rail, and a large portion of the network is single tracked, including the Belfast-Derry line which is probably NI’s 2nd most important rail line after the Dublin-Belfast line. This makes trains highly susceptible to delay, although for the most part the trains do run on schedule. Still, for an affordable price NIR is actually quite usable and enjoyable.