Belfast Telegraph

Rail line project needs to get back on track, and fast

By Eamonn McCann

The only thing predictable about the project to upgrade the Coleraine-Derry rail line is that, if you've missed the latest shambles, don't worry, there'll probably be another one along in a minute.

The reaction of north west rail-users to the latest delay has been of weary affront rather than angry uproar. This shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of concern.

Resentment about Derry's run-down rail-link has been building for some time - for half a century, to those minded to go back to the beginning.

The current mess arises from the near-doubling of the cost of the upgrade, from an estimated £22m to around £40m. The target wasn't just missed, but missed by a country mile. So far, there has been no explanation.

Now there's the prospect of a court clash between Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy and the Stormont committee overseeing his department - with a potential to push the completion date back yet again.

Phase Two of modernisation of the Belfast-Derry line includes the construction of a passing loop at Bellarena and the installation of new signalling along the route. This would allow trains to pass one another and so make an hourly service practicable, with a journey time of one hour 40 minutes, or one hour 45. At the moment, the journey takes two hours 10 minutes.

Trains in the reign of Queen Victoria covered the same stretch in the same time.

New signalling is vital for the new track and, especially, for operation of the loop. Planners envisage the closure of signal cabins at Castlerock and Derry and the centralisation of signalling at a state-of-the-art facility in Coleraine.

Work was to begin in 2014 and be completed by the end of this year. Now we are told to expect the new service by the end of next year. But the latest fiasco has cast doubt on the viability of even that target.

In the Assembly last November, Minister Kennedy said that the reason for the giddy escalation in the projected cost was that Translink had used figures which "were not based on fact". The £22m estimate had been "little more than a guesstimate".

Most observers found this mind-boggling.

How could the costing of a multi-million pound public undertaking have been based not on fact, but on a "guesstimate". One train driver on the line commented: "Can these people not count?"

If the explanation doesn't lie in incompetence, or innumeracy, then what? This has been the subject of inquiries by Westminster MPs and has been covered in a public assessment report (PAR) delivered to Mr Kennedy in September last year. It is this report which the Regional Development Committee wants sight of.

On Monday, committee chairman Alex Maskey asked for even a redacted version of the report. The minister repeated that considerations of commercial confidentiality ruled this out.

A new tendering process was under way. Publication of the PAR findings might give one or other tendering firm a competitive advantage. The committee - not to mention the citizenry - would just have to wait.

The logic of the argument has not been immediately apparent to everyone. How could a factual narrative of what went wrong last year damage the prospect of a proper process this year?

The contents of the report would be available to all, including all involved in the current competition. What was the fear of the process being skewed based on?

If there is a ready answer to this question, it hasn't been conveyed to MLAs, or to the public. Hence, the committee's threat to take the minister to court if the report isn't produced pronto.

Pronto isn't a word which comes naturally to mind in relation to the Derry line. Discontent about the service can be traced back at least to 1965, when the last train on the old Great Northern (GNR) line chugged out of the city-centre station, bound for Strabane and Omagh and onwards to Portadown and thence to Dublin.

A city which only a few years previously had boasted four rail termini was left with only one, the London Midland and Scottish (LMS). (Train services had proper names in those days.)

Thus, it is that the hiatus affecting the one remaining line sends a shudder of anxiety through many who are in no way sentimental about rail. The issue is emblematic in the north west - a factor which may not be fully appreciated at Translink headquarters, or in the department at Stormont.

The only reason this one line is left is that, over the years, campaigners have seen off all hints and suggestions of closure.

The latest difficulty will be overcome. But it shouldn't take constant agitation to ensure that there is a speedy, modern train service between the two biggest cities in the north.

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