Why people in Derry are all steamed up over train times
Why doesn't Northern Ireland Rail send out ruddy-faced fellows in peaked caps and carrying red flags to shift the points along the Derry-Belfast line manually and allow trains to pass one another?
After all, NIR already uses the Victorian 'train protection system' between Coleraine and Castlerock - passing a 'token' on a metal loop between the driver and a signal box to confirm that the way ahead is safe.
And trains on the line now travel more slowly than during the reign of Victoria anyway. Rail passengers to Derry are going nowhere fast.
This despite the introduction last Monday of a new timetable intended to make the service more efficient.
Earlier, there had been anger among rail users that a proposed new schedule didn't deliver a train into Derry by 9am.
The lobby group Into The West (of which I am a member) campaigned noisily to remedy this defect.
A sense of satisfaction greeted Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy's (pictured right) announcement on September 11 that he'd told the company to "urgently review their proposals ...
"The company is now in a position to announce further change ... the first train into Derry will actually get in earlier than the original timetable, by 9.00, and commuters from Derry, Coleraine and Ballymena will have a reduced journey time of 10 to 15 minutes"
True enough, the first train was set to arrive at the Waterside station at 9.00 exactly on Monday ... having left Belfast at 6.20. That is, the travel time over 94 miles of track was two hours 40 minutes - 35.25 mph.
Previously, the train had left Belfast at 6.55 and arrived at 9.10 - two hours 15 minutes - a somewhat more zippy but still hardly hectic 41mph.
Minister Murphy's "reduced journey time of 10 to 15 minutes" turned out to be an increased journey time by 15 minutes.
Monday's locomotive lagged behind even this leisurely schedule, hitting town not at nine but at 9.18 - two minutes short of three hours to travel from Belfast.
Here's the Monday morning experience of a Ballymena-based teacher who works in Derry.
'Arrived in Ballymena 7.01, departed 7.06 - five minutes wait as Belfast-bound train took priority. Arrived Killagan loop 7.21, departed 7.30 - nine minutes wait as Belfast-bound train crossed.
Arrived Ballymoney 7.40, departed 7.50 - 10 minutes wait as Belfast train crossed. Arrived Coleraine 8.00, departed 8.23 - 23 minutes wait comprising a scheduled 15 minutes for Belfast train to cross and an unanticipated delay of eight minutes,'
The extra eight minutes was on account of an incoming train being late.
Since there is no passing loop on the single-track line between Coleraine and Derry, trains have to wait at either end for the way to clear.
Then there are six 'slows' (stretches subject to speed restrictions) before reaching Derry.
A passing loop could be installed in months, relatively cheaply. One source suggests that a half a million would cover it - the equivalent of a couple of yards of road. But the DRD wants to wait until full relay of the Coleraine-Derry track is under way, so as to install a new signalling system at the same time.
Into The West and the rail unions lobbied hard to have the Coleraine-Derry relay carried out at the same time as the upgrade of Ballymena-Coleraine, completed last year. But, regardless, the DRD pushed the project into the next spending round. The implication emerged in an answer from Conor Murphy to Ulster Unionist Daniel Kinahan in the Assembly last Friday: "Translink are (sic.) now advancing their detailed plans to determine the precise location for the passing loop and intend to incorporate this development into the much larger track relay and re-signalling project between Coleraine and Derry which is planned to run from 2011 to 2013.
These decisions are subject to the outcome of the economic appraisal and will require the necessary statutory approval process."
"Subject to the outcome of the economic appraisal." ie, subject to Sammy Wilson's cut-backs, ie, might never happen.
Some will say so what? Trains? Sentimentality.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with sentimentality. I am old enough to recall the steam trains of the 1950s whooshing clack-clack along the line, plunging into the tunnel below Mussenden Temple before emerging in a dazzle of light alongside the magnificent sea-scape at Castlerock, then curling around the curve of the Foyle for the final glide into Derry.
A hundred minutes from York Street to the Waterside. A full hour quicker than the first train into Derry today.
And you could get a cup of tea and a sausage roll for next to nothing.That's not sentimentality, but travelling in style.
The case for rail travel is based not on warm feeling but on cold economics.
Here are the figures for passenger numbers on the Derry line in the past five years:
That's commercial success. Against a background of neglect, it's sensational.
All across the world, as roads are increasingly recognised as pipelines for pollution, rail is regarded as the way of the future. We should be upgrading and expanding our rail network, not allowing it to deteriorate.
We could begin by ensuring that a train can travel from Belfast to Derry as quickly as in the era of Gladstone's Home Rule Bill.