Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

How the Minister is making a rail mess of the west's transport system

If all the arguments against spending up to a billion pounds on a dual carriageway from Derry to Aughnacloy were laid out end to end, the Department of Regional Development would drive a bulldozer over them.

At the same time, the department seems determined to derail all imaginative proposals for upgrading our rail network.

There are big-money interests backing roads; only plain people and commonsense campaigning for rail.

Contractors have been appointed for the 86km A5 project, even though the statutory consultation exercise has yet to take place.

Meanwhile, serious doubt arises about the delivery of Minister Conor Murphy's repeated pledge to re-lay the Derry-Coleraine rail line. And the lobby for the restoration of the old GNR line from Derry through Strabane and Omagh is being treated with disdain.

The bias against rail and in favour of roads contradicts the Executive's own undertakings to combat pollution.

A DRD report published last month declared: 'Further increases in road transport emissions will significantly undermine the potential to successfully realise the Executive's targets and commitments in this area . . . The outworking of the Climate Change Act, the Renewable Energy Directive and related legislation are likely to require action to reduce emissions from road transport.'

The report adds that 'the provision of extra road capacity . . . has consistently led to greater volumes of traffic'.

If this means anything it's that the A5 project should urgently be reconsidered. But the chances of this happening are slim.

On safety grounds alone, the A5, particularly between Newbuildings and Strabane, needs upgrading. But 86km of dual carriageway is a different proposition.

Along some sections, the road will have to be gouged into the countryside, while, for the 8km flood plain between Bready and Strabane, an embankment between seven and 13 metres high will have to be built. The impact on the landscape will be huge.

Before the route was chosen, a 'visual impact assessment' was carried out. From a helicopter.

It might have been hard to see from a helicopter that the new road would obliterate Tully Bog near Beltany Road, intrude on Mulvin Park with its ancient stone circle atop a mound, run within 50 metres of Harry Avery's Castle at Newtownstewart, a Gaelic stone structure with two stern and imposing D-shaped towers, a sight of aching beauty when silhouetted against a sunset, probably built by Aonrai Aimhbreidh O'Neill (died 1392). This won't have rated a glance from the planners as they plotted the concreting of the terrain.

The A5 could be made as safe as a road can be and the GNR rail line restored for less than the price of the proposed dual carriageway.

The track-bed for the line is still there. It could link at Portadown with Belfast-Dublin. There is no reason Derry-to-Dublin couldn't be done along this route in comfort in two-and-a-half hours. Who would want to travel any other way?

Last November, Mr Murphy told Ulster Unionist Tom Elliot that the proposed rail link had been shown to be "unfeasible". He referred the Fermanagh man to "the investment delivery plan which is published on the Strategic Investment Board's website" and to "the business case, completed in August 2007 . . . for the New Trains Two programme".

But I can find nothing on the SIB website of any assessment, or analysis, or any exercise of any kind to establish the feasibility or otherwise of a Derry-Portadown line. Nor in the August 2007 Trains Two business case.

The idea that rail is "unfeasible" is not an established fact, but an assumption.

Similarly with the relay of Derry-Coleraine. The Into The West lobby group, the rail unions and a number of MLAs - most vociferously John Dallat - campaigned to have the Coleraine-Derry relay carried out at the same time as the upgrade of Ballymena-Coleraine, completed in 2008.

But the DRD pushed the project into the next spending round, with loud assurances that it would certainly go ahead. Now it seems set to fall under the axe of budget cutbacks.

A clue to the factors behind this thinking might be discerned in the identity of the construction companies selected in advance for the A5 mega-contracts: Newbuildings to Sion Mills, Balfour Beatty/BAM/FP McCann Joint Venture; Sion Mills to Omagh, Roadbridge/Sisk/PT McWilliam Joint Venture; Omagh to Aughnacloy, Graham/Farrans Joint Venture.

Big hitters one and all. And we mustn't forget our constant friends, the consultants.

In the Assembly on December 19, Allan Bresland (DUP, Mid-Tyrone) asked the minister "how much his Department has paid, to date, to Mouchel consultants in relation to their work on the proposed A5 . . . and what is the anticipated total payment?"

Here's the answer: "Roads Service has to date paid Mouchel £15,583,276, in relation to development work completed to date, on the A5 western transport corridor project. It is anticipated that they will be paid around £32m under their current commission, which extends to the end of the public inquiry phase.

"If [!] a successful outcome is obtained at public inquiry, it is anticipated that further costs to completion of the project would be in the order of £15-£20m."

Around £50m then. To an outside operator for advice on how to implement a proposal which we will look back on in time and choke as we wonder what we must have been thinking to let them away with it.

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