Transport Minister Danny Kennedy has told the Assembly of plans for high-speed trains to run every half-hour between Londonderry and Belfast within a decade.
The current level of service is to be upgraded dramatically after he redirected funding from within his department to bring forward the track re-lay on the line from Derry to Coleraine.
Mr Kennedy was speaking at Stormont yesterday as he set out his plans for the Derry line.
It comes after a major Telegraph-backed campaign led by lobby group Into The West forced a U-turn on the decision to delay the work until 2014/15.
Eight daily services will be in place from this time, with an hourly service planned after a passing loop and further re-lay works are undertaken in 2014 and 2015, he said. The line will be closed for nine months prior to April 2013 for the initial upgrade work.
Mr Kennedy acknowledged “the strength and the depth of feeling” he witnessed at a meeting of all elected representatives at the Guildhall in August.
He told the Assembly that after this he had instructed his officials in the Department for Regional Development and Translink to examine all possible options for bringing the upgrade forward.
The minister said a notice about the forthcoming works would be placed in the European Journal within days.
“This is good news for the people of the north west, the people of Northern Ireland and the many hundreds of thousands of visitors who use this scenic rail line.
“I’m looking forward to being on the train to Londonderry in April 2013.
“This approach will secure the long-term future of the line and assist in efforts to bring major golf tournaments and other tourism and cultural initiatives to the north coast.
“The overall aim is to have hourly services available from the end of the current budget period in 2015.”
Mr Kennedy said he would like to see high-speed trains between Derry and Dublin and Cork as well as Belfast.
MLAs from all parties welcomed Mr Kennedy’s policy.
He said he hoped the announcement would be welcomed by all those who have backed the railway campaign, including Monty Python comic, travel writer and explorer Michael Palin.
Referencing a famous Python sketch, Mr Kennedy joked: “I hope word will reach him that this parrot is not dead at all.”
The money for the initial upgrade will come from the roads budget, the minister said.
He said: “The choice of road schemes to be re-profiled will have to take account of commitments made by the Republic of Ireland government in respect of the A5/A8 schemes, the current state of progress on these and other roads schemes including the A2 and A6 schemes, risks arising from procurement and critically the capacity of the construction industry to deliver on the roads programme.
“There remains a strong economic case for ensuring the roads budget is adequately funded.”
Welcoming the commitment, East Derry SDLP MLA and prominent campaigner for the rail improvements John Dallat said: “At long last I believe we have got a commitment that this is the beginning of a new approach to developing an inter-city rail service to the North West.”
The Belfast Telegraph ran a successful campaign — Keep Derry On Track — urging the Transport Minister to urgently upgrade the Derry rail line in time the City of Culture year in 2013. The first phase of the works — which will cost £27m — will now be finished by that April. Some £22m is to be spent after 2013 on passing and re-signalling works with a further £36m on relaying.