Northern Ireland’s entire rail network could be electrified as part of a major investment package, Transport Minister Danny Kennedy has announced.
Proposals to electrify lines would cost £350m and deliver a greener and more cost-effective service.
Electrification is one of eight packages put out for consultation on Monday to give the public their view on future investment.
The consultation looks at projected future demand and sets out the cost of the eight different proposals which include ideas such as electrifying the network, extending the network to Donegal and building a spur that would link Belfast International Airport with the city.
While Mr Kennedy urged the public to have their say in the future of our railway services, the Green Party warned that the plans lacked ambition.
Green Party MLA Steven Agnew welcomed plans to electrify the rail network but urged Mr Kennedy to press ahead instead of delaying it until 2030, as outlined in the consultation document.
“It is clear that Northern Ireland’s rail infrastructure has suffered due to decades of neglect and significant investment is now needed to bring it into line with other comparable areas in Europe,” Mr Agnew said.
“For example, while 40% of the UK’s rail network is currently electrified, in Northern Ireland the ambition to move to an electrified network is deferred until 2030/35. But electrification can lead to at least a 20% reduction in running costs, offer superior performance and is less damaging to the environment.
“So while we welcome the eventual move to an electrified network in Northern Ireland, we would like to see that process expedited. We need to break our current expensive addiction to fossil fuels, and public transport will play a key role in moving people in Northern Ireland away from private vehicle use.
“Consumers want a viable and affordable alternative and this will only be achieved by developing an extensive, reliable and affordable public transport network.”
Mr Agnew said there is also latent demand in areas that are not included in the network, such as a link to airports and across the west. The public consultation document suggests that links to the west and Donegal will not be economically viable and that adding a spur to Belfast International Airport will not provide a more cost-effective service than what is offered by bus.
“There will always be a continuous need to renew the train fleet, to maintain and upgrade existing lines, and to modernise stations as well as to keep under review opportunities to expand the network,” he said.
“Looking forward over the next 20 years, there has to be a strategic direction to determine the priority in which we should tackle new railways projects. Recently I have received suggestions from interested parties as to how the railways network might be developed.”
Ireland's first railways were built in the 1830s and expanded to reach a peak in the early 1900s, when more than 1,000 miles of track served the north east alone. Rail gradually lost out on the battle with road for passenger and freight custom and a number of railway systems were shut down between the 40s and 60s.
The network now offers 211 route miles of track linking Belfast along five lines with Londonderry, Portrush, Bangor, Larne and Portadown/Newry extending south to Dublin. The Executive is providing capital grant aid to NIR at a rate of £44m per annum.
The consultation period on the eight packages will run until April 12, 2013. The public can request the document by telephoning the department on 028 90 540468, or by emailing email@example.com or by visiting the DRD website at http://www.drdni.gov.uk/publications.