A Stormont document on the future of rail services has revealed an ambitious £1bn plan to link Londonderry to Sligo.
But there are fears for cross-border rail after it emerged that passenger numbers on the Belfast to Dublin Enterprise service dropped by more than a fifth in a decade.
Martin Melaugh, from rail lobby group Into the West, suggested that the Enterprise train should not stop at Belfast but continue on to Derry. “With new rolling stock and an express service taking three and a quarter hours, this would be an attractive option for passengers travelling between the North West and Dublin,” he said.
But the Sligo link and others to Donegal and Letterkenny have been described by leading economist John Simpson as a pipe dream.
But they are listed as options in the Department for Regional Development’s Future Railway Investment Consultation paper.
The dearest package is developing links to Donegal — costing £11m per new mile of railway.
A rail link between Londonderry and Letterkenny would cost £242m; £506m to Donegal town and £924m to Sligo.
MLA says service faces death of a thousand cuts
The 22% decline in passengers using the cross-border Enterprise service — branded “extremely worrying” by politicians — emerged in a government consultation paper on the future of railway investment produced by the Department for Regional Development.
And the fall in numbers since 2001 has led to a stark warning that if major investment is not found to improve the service it could result in the “death of the Belfast to Dublin railway line by a thousand cuts”.
It comes as DRD proposals in a government consultation estimated that the ailing rail network needed at least £620m just to be maintained over the next 20 years.
It also proposes that to enhance Enterprise Services over a 12-year period would cost an extra £460m. The document on the Future Railways Investment consultation showed that passenger numbers on every section of the Northern Ireland network has grown over the past 10 years.
All except the cross-border route between Belfast and Dublin. In 2001/02, some 953,000 passengers were using the inter-city service per year.
But by 2011/12 this had dipped to 740,000.
This bucks the trend with passenger journeys on other lines growing over that period.
Overall, they rose from 5.8m in 2000/01 to just under 10 million in 2011/12— a growth of 74%.
Among the reasons suggested in the paper for the drop in cross-border rail usage included:
- The Malahide Bridge collapse in 2009 when a bus substitution was in place between Drogheda and Dublin;
- The recent economic conditions; and
- The significant improvements in road infrastructure.
Alliance MLA and member of the Stormont Regional Development Committee Stewart Dickson (right) said the new A1 had a major impact on the service.
“The cross-border rail service is really falling behind in terms of competition from the new road — the rolling stock is falling behind,” he said. “There is a strong argument for saying we should get European investment but unless we can get that it (the consultation options) is not viable and we will just see the death of the Belfast to Dublin railway line by a thousand cuts.
“Because in a few years time we are going to be told the signalling isn’t up to standard, the track isn’t up to standard and the train times will go down rather than go up, the speeds will go down rather than up.”
The consultation said it will require “continued improvement in rail services and journey time” to improve the situation.
A proposed integrated transport hub with all trains and bus services travelling to Great Victoria Street, including the Enterprise, instead of Central Station, could help boost the service.
The paper also suggested services via train to Dublin increase to one every hour.
Economist John Simpson said: “The Enterprise at the moment is probably still going down because of the influence of the motorway—it has taken a lot of traffic.”
Martin Melaugh, from rail lobby group Into the West, said the Enterprise Service is an important link with the Republic.
He said: “For people in the North West wishing to use the service, its value very much depends on how well it is connected to the timetable on the Derry line. Over the years this has sometimes been good and sometimes poor.
“One way of improving the timetabling... would be to consider running the Enterprise train through Belfast and on to Derry.
“With new rolling stock and an express service taking three-and-a-quarter hours, this would be an attractive option for passengers travelling between the North West and Dublin.”
Mr Melaugh added that the cost of tickets should also be considered.
A Translink spokesperson said: “Enterprise passenger numbers have been affected by the main Belfast-Dublin road upgrade and a general downturn in the Republic of Ireland economy that also resulted in a typical 20% dip in intercity rail travel across the Republic.”
Proposals to enhance the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise service.
- Cost £460m.
- The aim is to improve journey times and frequency of Enterprise service.
- Plans could include at least six high-speed electric trains, a track upgrade from Belfast to the border to permit speeds of 125mph and the electrification of track.