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.
EIGHT PROPOSALS TO KEEP THE TRAINS RUNNING
1. Maintain the present network only.
Cost £620m. Preserving standard of existing network. This also involves the completion of phase 3 Coleraine-Londonderry track renewal project.
2. Improving Passenger Capacity.
Cost £600m. Adding more carriages to trains, increasing Park&Ride at stations. Involves developing new halts where passenger demand ‘is identified’.
3. Increase network capacity to accommodate more trains
Cost £260m. Aim to remove bottlenecks and enhance infrastructure. Includes construction of integrated ‘Transport Hub’ at Great Victoria Street. Addition of third lines and platforms serving Central Station and Great Victoria Street. Widening and dualling of track between Central Station and Yorkgate to facilitate new halt at Donegall Quay.
4. Enhancing Enterprise Service.
Cost £460m. Aim to improve journey times and frequency of Enterprise service. Includes at least six high-speed electric trains. Track upgrade from Belfast to border to permit speeds of 125mph. Electrification of track from Belfast to border.
5. Electrification of NI network.
Cost £350m. Aim is to have faster, quieter service. Could potentially lead to 20% running cost reduction.
6. Re-opening Antrim-Knockmore line and link to Belfast International.
7. Extending rail lines to the west.
Aim — links to Tyrone and Fermanagh
8. Rail links to Donegal
Londonderry-Letterkenny: £242m Londonderry-Donegal Town: £506m
Londonderry - Sligo: £924m
Majority of estimated investment would fall to Irish Rail. Irish Rail said proposal to create new rail connection through Donegal would not be economically viable.
This is the most expensive option.
Europe the only hope for the kind of funds required
Northern Ireland will have to appeal for special European funding if the hundreds of millions of pounds needed to save our ailing rail network is to be raised.
If the huge investment needed in our network over 20 years isn’t found, it’s feared that rail services will continue to slip significantly behind the rest of Europe.
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson warned: “The future of rail, in my view, hangs in the balance unless we are prepared to invest substantially large sums of money.”
Ideas on transforming the network are being considered by the Department of Regional Development (DRD). Its consultation paper of eight possible projects was branded a “pipe dream” by politicians and economists.
In the current budget period 2011/12 to 2014/15, the Executive’s capital rail investment per year is on average £44m.
But in the 20 years after 2015 it could rocket to a potential investment of £880m.
The DRD Future Railway Investment Consultation proposed eight different packages on maintaining or upgrading the network.
The various options — each costing hundreds of millions — laid bare the huge investment needed to introduce faster and more frequent services, new halts such as at Belfast International Airport, the clearing of bottlenecks and extending of lines.
As officials consider the results, questions have been asked if the proposals—given the tough economic climate— are “viable”.
Among the options presented was one which showed that £620m is required simply to maintain the present network.
Another £350m package would have to be found to electrify it to “provide a fast, efficient, and environmentally friendly scheme on par with GB and EU”.
Package three — costing £260m — proposes an integrated ‘transport hub’ at Great Victoria Street in Belfast city centre.
This would involve all trains and buses, including the cross-border Enterprise service, travelling to Great Victoria Street.
Tracks would also be widened and dualled between Central Station and Yorkgate facilitating a new halt at Donegall Quay.
The dearest package is developing links to Donegal. A rail link from Londonderry to Letterkenny would cost £242m; £506m from Derry to Donegal town and Derry to Sligo £924m.
The paper said most of the investment costs would fall to Irish Rail.
But economist John Simpson describes the plans a “pipe dream”.
He said while there were “good ideas” — including the transport hub — he said it was another question of how to put it into practice.
“The railway options paper is a pipe dream and wouldn’t, I suspect, pass any tests for value for money as it stands,” he said.
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson, who sits on the DRD committee, says only European money will help achieve the massive upgrade.
“It's a wish list,” he says of all eight packages. “And I would agree it is, at the moment, a pipe dream.”
“Unless the minister and the Assembly can go and speak with one voice to Europe on the public transport front then my fear is that the steps we have taken forward in relation in investment in track and investment in rolling stock will very soon start to slip backwards unless there is not further investment.
“The future of rail, in my view, hangs in the balance unless we are prepared to invest.”
Green Party leader Stephen Agnew said it was clear that more needs to be done to support rail infrastructure.
“Within a European context we don’t have a modern public transport infrastructure,” he said.
“If you look at the investment that has been made in the railways it is about maintaining rather than enhancing.
“Of course the place you start is maintaining, but we do need to be going beyond that. It is not like we have a world-class infrastructure to maintain, it is very basic.”
Mr Agnew said the province is “certainly behind Europe” for rail services. “Anyone who has travelled in other European cities and compared them to Belfast — it just wouldn’t compete.”
DRD Committee Chairman Jimmy Spratt (below) said it was a “long-term aspirational wish list”.
“But in the present economic situation I can’t see any chance of getting major money unless it comes from Europe. But improvements have been made on the Coleraine and Londonderry line. I am positive more can be done.”
Martin Melaugh, from lobby group Into The West agreed it was a “wish list’ adding: “Two of the six counties of Northern Ireland aren’t served by a railway line which isn’t right.
“Whenever they provide new trains, provide the track and signalling and reduce journey times and increase the frequency it really does make a difference. The money is there, but at the minute they tend to give most money to roads and only 19% to public transport.
“Of that most goes to bus travel.”