Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Better rail link would stop waste of money on the roads

Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph

They've been so long in starting that you couldn't say for certain that the relay of the rail line between Derry and Coleraine will ever be completed.

What you can say for certain is that it will be completed by 2013 - if the Executive gives it the green light now.

The experts who have told Translink that this timetable is impracticable should be dispatched to Cumbria to study the relay of the 10-mile Lakes Line between Windermere, Kendal and Oxenholme in March 2002. That's not beginning or ending in March 2002, but during March 2002: the line was closed for 16 days. How come then we are told that the relay of Derry-Coleraine would involve shutting the line for 12 months?

Derry-Coleraine is three times longer than the Lakes Line. Two months, then? Three?

Money need be no object either. The cost of the relay was estimated by the Department of Regional Development in 2009 at £65m. Inflation will have boosted this figure in the meantime, perhaps to £75m.

Almost a third of this, £22.5m, has been allocated in the current spending round. The shortfall is £52.5m - which could and should be transferred now from the DRD's roads budget. This would require no drastic reordering of the overall Executive budget but a modest adjustment of spending commitments within the DRD.

The case for a full-steam-ahead approach to the rail project is not based on special pleading for Derry and the North West. Upgrading the line between the North's two main cities would benefit the region as a whole.

A new track would allow a Derry-Belfast travel time of one hour 40 minutes, considerably faster than a car journey at peak hours. The recent Regional Transport Strategy (RTS) estimated the average morning road speed at 40mph and journey times at between one hour 45 minutes and two hours 20 minutes.

A new track would have the potential to take hundreds of chugging cars off the road. The Railways Task Force Interim Report of 2000 estimated that this could cut annual emissions of poisonous carbon dioxide by as much as 20,000 tonnes, with obvious beneficial health implications as well as saving the North from heavy fines for continuing to fail to meet EU targets.

The beneficial effects on the mental health of commuters no longer forced to contemplate the scenery around the celebrity traffic jam at Sandyknowes for half an hour every morning may be difficult to calculate but are nonetheless just as real and clearly substantial.

The obsession of the DRD and Translink with roads has had the curious effect of blinding them to the potential of rail to ease road congestion.

The option of developing rail doesn't figure at all in the most recent proposals from the DRD for tackling the chronic congestion which arises daily at the York Street end of the Westlink when drivers from the North West finally succeed in disentangling themselves from the Sandyknowes snarl-up to inch into town. The proposals involve building a series of flyovers at a cost of £100m.

The Westlink originally cost £23m (£58m at 2007 prices). The scheme worked reasonably well, until it sucked more vehicles onto the road than had been anticipated.

So an upgrade, including the Broadway Flyover, was commissioned and completed in 2008 at a cost of £104m.

If the proposed confection of flyovers at York Street is now given the go-ahead, the cost of the Westlink will have risen to £300m.

Meanwhile, the DRD's suggestion for tackling congestion on the Sydenham bypass is to add an extra lane in each direction at a cost of £14m.

Everywhere and always, it seems, the answer to the problem of too many vehicles on the roads is to provide for more vehicles on the road.

The most egregious example of this - it's the right word - irrationality is the implacable determination of the DRD to plough on with the dualling of the A5 all the way from Newbuildings to Aughnacloy - bypassing en route three bypasses built in the past 10 years - at a cost of £10m per kilometre.

In the context of these figures, the £52.5m needed to relay the line to Derry by 2013 is a bargain. There is no practical reason the money shouldn't be made available without delay.

It is clear that, so far, the renewal of the Derry line hasn't been a serious political priority for the powers-that-be in Belfast, despite ringing pledges from a succession of ministers, most stridently the last DRD Minister Conor Murphy. We used to blame the sectarianism of the one-party Unionist State for the neglect of Derry, including its rail links. But who are we to blame if the power-sharers, too, now renege?

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