Posted by: wesleyjohnston | January 28, 2014

The Original A6 Upgrade – Castledawson to Derry

This blog is about the A6 upgrade. No, not that one. Nor this one. It’s about the original A6 upgrade. The one that took place during the 1960s and early 1970s and which saw much of the A6 upgraded from twisty country lane standard, to a straight and spacious two lane road – sometimes even with hard shoulders – allowing the aspiring 1960s motorist to cruise at speed between Belfast and Derry.

Because the upgrade left bits of the old pre-60s A6 in place, we can actually see what the old pre-upgrade A6 looked like in the 1950s. This is the bridge at Drumahoe that all traffic leaving Derry had to cross to leave the city (Google link):

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 15.06.40

This is the former A6 just east of Feeny (Google link):

Former A6 east of Feeny

Here is the former A6 at Glenshane Pass. Remember, this is how most of the A6 would have looked to the 1950s driver traversing the mountains here (Google link):

Former A6 at Glenshane Pass

This is how the former A6 looks as we approach Maghera (Google link):A6 just west of Maghera

Finally, this is the former A6 as we approach Castledawson (Google link):

A6 near Castledawson

In the 1960s, the A6 was not a busy route. Even in 1970, traffic levels on the section between Castledawson and Derry varied between 2000 and 5000 vehicles per day (today, the rule of thumb is that a single-carriageway road can cope with traffic levels of up to about 18,000 per day). The route via Coleraine was the more popular route to Derry at that time, with traffic levels of almost 7000 vehicles per day on the Derry to Limavady Road in 1970. This may have been due to the very intimidating route through Glenshane Pass – a breakdown there in the winter in a 1950s car could have had serious consequences.

In 1964 plans were announced to build a motorway to Derry: the first part of the journey would have been via the M2 which would have run from Belfast via Antrim and Ballymena to Coleraine. Just north of Ballymena, the M23 would have diverged and headed straight to Derry via Limavady. As the M2 passed Antrim, a second spur motorway, the M22, would have diverged and gone to Castledawson, via Randalstown to serve the Mid Ulster area:

1964 Motorway Plans, Northern Ireland

However, the plan was overly ambitious and it was always recognised that provision of both the north end of the M2 and M23 were a long way in the future.

So in the early 1960s the decision was made that the A6 west of Castledawson (i.e. the section that was not to be replaced by a motorway) should be upgraded. Traffic levels were then less than a quarter of the level that would justify a dual-carriageway, so the proposal was to widen and reconstruct the road to a high quality single-carriageway standard.

The route chosen was a part online, and part offline upgrade, about 50% of the route in each case. In cases where the existing road was very poor, or very twisty, or passed through towns an entirely new offline road would be built. In cases where there wasn’t much existing development (e.g. Glenshane Pass) or where the alignment of the existing road wasn’t too bad, an online upgrade was proposed.

Thus the stretch from Derry to near Claudy was an online upgrade. The next stretch from Claudy to Dungiven passed through two towns – Claudy and Feeny, so instead an existing minor road to the north was upgraded and the A6 diverted onto it. At Dungiven the new road rejoined the old A6. It was planned that a bypass would be built round Dungiven, although for some reason this work kept getting postponed and was never carried out. After Dungiven, there was an online upgrade of the existing road through Glenshane Pass to Maghera. After this, the decision was made to follow an entirely new route through open countryside to bypass the towns of Maghera, Knockloughrim and Castledawson to the south. The upgrade ended at Castledawson, since that is where the M22 was to have started. The map below shows the route of the A6 as it existed in 1962 superimposed on a modern map. You can zoom in to this map and see where the old A6 diverges from the modern road, and see some of the corners that were ‘cut off’ in the process.

Since road building was not centrally planned under Roads Service until 1973, much of the work was carried out by engineers from Londonderry County Council, although it was paid for in full by the Northern Ireland government from the so-called “Road Fund” which was, at that time, funded through a tax on motor vehicles. (The Road Fund no longer exists, nor does the link between investment in the road network and vehicle tax.)

The work was carried out in stages. The upgrade of the stretch from Derry to Dungiven was carried out in twelve phases between 1960 and 1969. The only exception was the bridge at Burntollet which had been replaced by an adjacent modern structure in 1957 – it was, in fact, the first prestressed concrete bridge ever built in Northern Ireland. The standard of this new road was light years ahead of what had been there before – compare this to the pictures at the top of this blog post. This is a stretch of A6 near Claudy that was constructed in 1969 (Google link):

A6 near Claudy, as upgraded in 1969

Not all of the new road was equipped with hard shoulders, but many sections of it were, and these allowed broken down cars (of which there were a lot in the 60s) to get safely off the road. The straight, flat alignment allowed much higher speeds to be safely reached while the good visibility made junctions safer too.

The stretch from Dungiven to Castledawson followed later, and was rebuilt in eight separate contracts between 1967 and 1975. The standard of road here was even higher than the Derry to Dungiven stretch. Perhaps this was a consequence of the slightly later time period. The new section through Glenshane Pass, completed in 1967, was such an improvement of what had been there before that for drivers it would have been like entering a different world (Google link):

A6 Glenshane Pass

One of the final sections to be built was the offline section from Maghera to Castledawson which was built to a very high standard in the early 70s due to it following a new route cross country (Google link):

A6 near Knockloughrim

However, the fact that the grand motorway plans of the 1960s were never completed left some problems with the A6 upgrade. Firstly, it ended south of Castledawson, at the roundabout where the M22 was to end, rather than passing the town to the north as the old A6 did. Since the M22 was never completed this far, it meant that all A6 traffic now had to go down Castledawson’s main street! This was very unsatisfactory and, after it was clear that the M22 was not going to be completed, a ‘quick fix’ in the form of the Castledawson Bypass was finally built in 1992 to resolve the problem. I talk more about this vital but under-rated bypass in this blog post.

Secondly, the planned provision of the M22 meant that the A6 Moneynick Road from Randalstown to Castledawson was not rebuilt, although the worst bends have been smoothed out. Since it was assumed that the completion of the M22 would turn the Moneynick Road into a local road, it was not deemed necessary to include it in the 1960s scheme. This means that the A6 Moneynick Road is today one of the most shamefully below-spec trunk roads in Northern Ireland compared to its importance and traffic levels. Thankfully, an upgrade is planned, while a bypass round Toome opened ten years ago.

Finally, the Dungiven Bypass remains an anomaly. Despite being planned back in the 1960s it has, for bizarre unknown reasons, still not been built despite being a live scheme now for half a century. It is today the only town between Belfast and Derry not to have been bypassed.

It has now been between 40 and 50 years since the first A6 upgrade was carried out. The road is now far busier than the planners back then ever anticipated, and so it is right that we are now making proposals to further upgrade parts of it to dual-carriageway standard. But we should not forget the achievement of the engineers who rebuilt almost the entire A6 west of Castledawson in the 1960s and early 70s. Without their work, the road from Belfast to Derry would be considerably slower and more dangerous than it is today.



  1. Very interesting post of a road I have driven on quite a bit. Look out even on Dungiven Main Street for some small “blink and you’ll miss it” sections of the old road before it was also realigned. Within Derry City there are some small remnants of what would have probably been the old A6.

  2. Did the old Glenshane Pass section ever have markings when it was the main road?

    • Sorry, I don’t know. But it was superseded by the new road almost 50 years ago, so even if there were markings they could well have worn away to nothing by now.

  3. “However, the plan was overly ambitious”

    Actually the plan made perfect sense. It still does.

    • To clarify – I meant “overly ambitious” in the sense that with hindsight it is unlikely that the Stormont government could have afforded it in the 1960s/70s. It is also unlikely that there would have been sufficient workforce and raw materials to build it in the timescale envisaged. Similar issues were the primary reason behind the cancellation of the Belfast Urban Motorway.

  4. The irony is that, had they not upgraded the road in the ’60s, we would now have a glistening Southern-style HQDC all the way.

    It is because the road is just about okay that it hasn’t been prioritised.

  5. What a great website I’ve travelled this road since the 70s with my dad driving and always wondered what the road would have looked like before it was upgraded I remember the old bits coming out of Dungiven and he always drove the old section at knocloughrim to miss Castledawson it was quicker

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