As a big advocate for investment in railways, it’s been interesting watching the increased level of discourse and debate on the subject over the last few months. I'd say there's very few people on Irish Twitter who haven't seen that graphic comparing the railway network of 100 years ago to the one today. Back then it was estimated that every town was within ten miles of a railway station. Compare that to today where huge swathes of our country are without decent transport links.
As a result many railway investment campaigns are building steam across the country. From the Into the West’s campaign for improved and expanded services in Derry and the North-West, to West on Track advocating for the full restoration of the Western Rail corridor from Limerick to Sligo it’s clear that many communities in Ireland realise the benefits railways can bring.
Most recently the New Decade, New Approach deal committed the Irish Government to work within the North-South Ministerial Council to look at the feasibility of a Belfast-Dublin-Cork high-speed rail link. This was reaffirmed by Taoiseach Micheál Martin at the recent NSMC meeting. The study was just one out of almost a dozen infrastructure projects mentioned by Martin but the response to it on social media had far outstripped all the others combined. Many welcomed the commitment while others, including the deputy First Minister, felt that once again Derry and the North-West were getting the short end of the stick.
I personally welcome the development as a proper 200km/h electrified link between Ireland’s three large cities that can be transformative in kick-starting the modal shift needed for the North and the Republic to meet their climate commitments.
It did, however, highlight one of the major issues in our transport investment strategy as we saw many air their legitimate grievances that this will not benefit vast swathes of the island. Some then tried to sell an extension of the service to Derry via Belfast which will inevitably become yet another short-term bodge that could last decades.
These parochial soundbites continue to do Derry and the North-West a disservice, as though this is the best that can be achieved when in Northern Ireland capital spending on public transport is extremely low in comparison to other European countries and regions.
Between 2004/05 and 2014/15 capital spending on the railway network amounted to £400m . The average spend per person per year amounted to just £22. This compares very poorly to Great Britain (£110/person/year), Germany (£145/person/year) and Switzerland (£290/person/year). It’s no wonder that Northern Ireland is the most car-dependent region of the UK. If we are going to achieve the modal shift needed to combat the climate crisis then this spend needs to be significantly increased, with a guaranteed proportion of capital funding available each year to carry out seriously needed upgrade and extension work.
The current public transport network in Northern Ireland and border areas of the Republic is woefully underequipped to achieve this shift. Infrequent bus services and a non-existent rail transport only serves to highlight the regional imbalance. The border itself only served to speed up the decline of the railways and it is one of the largest barriers to developing regionally balanced infrastructure across the hinterlands of the two states. Our connections between communities weave across the border so it is only right that our transport network does too. An umbrella agency is needed where different modes can cooperate across the island rather than compete, and any investment strategy must be regionally balanced and blind to the border.
Despite the lack of investment, prior to this year NI Railways passenger numbers were reaching record highs of 15.8 million journeys. This doesn’t even take into account that the network is currently the smallest it has ever been. If there is such high demand for rail services in towns currently served by railways like Antrim, Portadown and Bangor then it should follow that there is also demand in places like Omagh, Letterkenny and Newtownards.
Previous investment in the Derry line has resulted in passenger numbers increasing by 61% over the last two years and by over 600% since 2001. These outstanding levels of growth should be encouragement enough to begin planning for the expansion of the network, however it seems that the DfI needs more persuasion.
Back in 2014, the old Department for Regional Development published the Railway Investment Prioritisation Strategy. Whereas previous strategies gave the options of either closure or bringing the network up to modern standards, this was the first railway strategy for Northern Ireland that was explicitly expansionist and investment-focused in nature. It proposed not just new and improved stations and park and ride facilities, new and refurbished rolling stock, and removing bottlenecks in the network but also pledged to commission feasibility studies into expansion of the network to Castledawson, Dungannon, Armagh and reopening the Knockmore-Antrim line to serve Belfast International Airport. The report even remarks that;
“Although listed as Priority 3, the Department will be progressing the case for feasibility studies recognising the importance of new railway links felt by many people.”
Despite this, no feasibility studies have ever materialised publicly, if they were ever done at all. Progress on the rest of the priorities have been limited, with some upgrades to stations and rolling stock. The Derry line is still waiting on phase 3 of its current upgrade program while potential new halts and park and ride facilities haven’t appeared either. This doesn’t even consider that nothing from the network enhancement and expansion sections haven’t been taken forward. Many people have waited far too long to see a decent service through their communities and the previously roads focused DfI cannot let them down anymore. Although I would have liked to have made this article a wish list of my favourite lines to be reopened, I realise that would simply reflect my own personal bias which is something that the current discourse does not need more of. What I hope I’ve carried across throughout the article is the need to create a proper long-term plan to increase the quality and scope of our public transport network.
I hope that the Irish Government and Northern Ireland Executive will take this increased enthusiasm for railway improvement and expansion and commission an island-wide Public Transport Investment Strategy, with explicit goals including:
Increasing public transport funding to a comparative level of other parts of the EU and UK, with a guaranteed minimum proportion of funding going to capital investment.
The creation of a single island-wide transport agency and public transport operator, through the North-South Ministerial Council.
A rolling program of upgrades to the current railway network, including electrification, new track, new signalling and new stations.
Ensuring a 'no region left behind' policy is implemented so investment is not concentrated in Ireland’s three big cities.
Increased integration, collaboration and connectivity between all forms of travel on and around the island (air, sea, road, rail).
These ideas and more will hopefully go some way towards improving public transport connectivity across the island, ensuring that everyone will have a high quality, reliable service, regardless of where you live or are travelling to.
Oisín Donnelly is a 21 year old student from Tyrone currently studying Electrical Engineering at Queen's University. He is also an active member of the SDLP and serves as SDLP Youth Equality Officer.