Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

If there is a will there is a way to get back on track

Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph
Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph

The Executive's first Budget following restoration of the Stormont institutions in May 2007 contained the go-ahead for "a proposed major track relay project between Coleraine and London- derry". The line had been under threat. Now the threat had been lifted. Or so it seemed.

A month later, Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy explained that planning a scheme this size takes time. It would be 2011 before a start could be made, 2013 before completion.

But 2011 is here and there has been no start. Meanwhile, safety restrictions arising from continuing deterioration of the line mean that journey times are lengthening, not reducing.

The story of the Derry rail link has been characterised by, at best, a lack of candour from civil servants, transport managers and politicians. At worst, it's been a con job.

Last month, new DRD Minister Danny Kennedy announced that £20m had been allocated to the project for 2014/15 "to allow the project to start".

That is, it would finally get moving a year later than Mr Murphy had promised it would arrive. The bulk of the work, costing a further £50m, had been shifted forward into the next budget period, beginning in 2015/16.

However, as Mr Kennedy conceded in a letter last month to Mark Durkan and Gregory Campbell: "I cannot predict the outcome of the next Comprehensive Spending Review."

There's no guarantee the £50m will be forthcoming in 2015/16, or ever. This puts a question mark against the earlier £20m phase, too. If there's no certainty the project will proceed, what would be the sense in splurging £20m on preliminary work?

Work on a number of interim safety measures costing between £2m and £4m will begin later this year and last into 2012. During this period, passengers will have to travel to and from Coleraine by bus and transfer onto the train. Travel times will increase, the number of trains will decrease. The journey will be markedly less congenial. Passengers will be deterred. The train won't take the strain.

The repair work won't allow trains to travel faster. On the contrary, the dire state of the track itself means that the speed limit on trains built to cruise at 90mph will be reduced from 60mph to 50mph, with more stringent restrictions operating on particular stretches.

The track will continue to deteriorate and the restrictions remain until, if ever, a full relay is completed. New trains presently being delivered - CAF 4000s - have three engines per set, weigh 80 tons more than trains currently being used and run on smaller wheels. The result is significantly more downward pressure than the old jointed track can sustain.

The piecemeal approach to upgrading the line has ensured that the track will become progressively more decrepit.

This would not have happened had there been any serious commitment to deliver on Conor Murphy's 2007 pledge of a full relay by 2013.

There is no evidence to hand of a conspiracy to downgrade and then do away with the Derry line. But if there were a conspiracy, this is what it might look like.

Talk of lopping off the Derry link is nothing new. The Regional Transport Strategy Northern Ireland 2002-2010, considering the likely outcome of any future funding shortfall, concluded: "Although new rolling stock and improvements to the line in the greater Belfast area will benefit rail users, it is believed that, because of safety concerns, lack of funding would result in the discontinuation of rail services between Antrim and Knockmore, Whitehead and Larne and Ballymena and Londonderry."

Any confidence that there'd be change in this perspective as a result of devolution was shattered a fortnight ago when the News Letter published a paper, Day One - Urgent Issues, which DRD officials had presented to Danny Kennedy on his first day in office on May 16.

This set out the transport strategy which Mr Kennedy was inheriting. It spelled it out that "a key feature of the latest plan" will involve "decoupling" Derry-Coleraine from the rest of the network to facilitate the safety repairs. "Decoupling" seems both an apt and an ominous term.

It would still be possible to deliver on the 2007 plan, so that visitors might glide serenely along the gorgeous curve of the Foyle and into the centre of Derry to join the feast for the heart being prepared for the City of Culture.

The money is there: just 5% of the bloated roads budget would be enough.

All of the equipment needed is sitting unused at the Irish Rail works in Inchicore. It's doable. What's needed is the political will.

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