Plug the gap in NI’s rail network – Seven requests for the West…

When Northern Ireland was founded a century ago, an intricate network of railway lines knitted every town and city together across the jurisdiction. It was an important economic and social inheritance from the Victorian era, at a time when all transport was ‘public transport’.

Within less than 50 years, however, all that had changed. In 1949 the multitude of private companies that ran individual railway lines across NI was nationalised under the Stormont-controlled ‘Ulster Transport Authority’ (UTA). The UTA was notoriously anti-rail and immediately began to cull sections of the network across Northern Ireland. Its first victim was the Belfast and County Down Railway – which connected NI’s largest city to every corner of its second-most populous county. Almost all of that line was shut between 1950 and 1955, with only the Belfast to Bangor section surviving.

Whilst the anti-rail attitude of the UTA appears myopic to many today, their attitude was not out-of-keeping with the mood at that time. The post-World War 2 era saw a series of social and political changes that began to erode the status and viability of rail transport – particularly the rise of motorised vehicles for individuals, passengers and freight. As the 1950s and 1960s progressed road transport felt like the future – with major highways planned and pushed right into the centre of cities like Belfast. The view at the time was that roads and cars were a liberating force for good – with their negative impacts on pollution, congestion, obesity and the fragmentation of urban areas yet to be understood. However – Northern Ireland being Northern Ireland, suspicions also arose that partisan politics played no small part in the decisions for which lines to close at that time. Given that the old one-party Stormont regime failed to treat all of its citizens equally or fairly on issues as broad as housing, voting, education and economic development, it would be naive to think that the one policy area in which they somehow managed to ‘play fair’ was infrastructure. Particularly given infrastructure’s power to influence the distribution of people and jobs, in the context of the old Stormont regime’s obsession with religious demography.

It, therefore, came as no surprise to many that the rail network across the west of NI faced the most swingeing cuts in the 1950s and 60s. By 1965 all but one of the rail routes in the west of Ulster had been erased from the map. That removed rail from key towns like Omagh, Enniskillen, Dungannon, Strabane, Cookstown, Limavady and Letterkenny. The only line in the west to survive was the Derry-Belfast route, whilst the only cross-border service that remained open was Belfast-Dublin in the east. Rail was removed entirely from counties Tyrone and Fermanagh in NI, and Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan in the south (in part because closing lines in NI made retaining their ROI sections untenable). Whereas Derry had once sat at the convergence of an intricate network of four different railway routes and four stations across the city, by 1965 it was reduced to just one line – to Belfast – the terminus for which was in the predominantly unionist part of a majority-nationalist city. The decimation of Derry’s rail network proved to be one of a number of catalysts towards the growth of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association within the city – whose marches tended to commence from the city’s remaining rail station at Duke Street. In this way, the closure of rail in the west was one of a number of political and social threads in the late 1960s that independently spun together in the fuse that ultimately exploded into 30 years of The Troubles. The demise of infrastructure in the west of Ulster has been inextricably linked to the region’s economic under-performance ever since.

Not content with the rail closures of the previous century, in 2004 the post-Good Friday NI decided that it should erase the final section of rail from the western counties of Ulster. With the rail track between Derry and Belfast approaching the end of its lifespan and passenger numbers a fraction of what they are today, civil servants took advantage of the fact Stormont was suspended to propose that the line should close north and west of Ballymena. That would’ve removed rail from key towns like Derry City, Coleraine, Ballymoney and Portrush – whilst also making the likelihood of a future return to Tyrone, Fermanagh or Donegal even less likely. Veteran civil rights activist Eamon McCann was involved in establishing a group called ‘Into The West’ in Derry that successfully campaigned to have that decision over-turned. Though it is worth noting that, 18yrs on, the promised upgrade of the track STILL hasn’t been completed – with its final phase currently unfunded and pushed back to 2027 at the earliest. It seems that myopia towards rail in the west is a long-standing and endemic affliction amongst many within Stormont and the NI Civil Service.

The good news is that an opportunity has now arisen to undo some of these mistakes of the past. Rail is having a major renaissance across Europe, and the EU even declared 2021 its ‘Year of Rail’. Within the island of Ireland – a place with one of the highest car-dependency rates in Europe – rail is no longer being viewed as an outdated relic. It is instead increasingly seen as a key part of this island’s transport future – with an essential contribution to make in tackling climate change, road congestion and rebalancing population and economic activity away from Belfast and Dublin. The Republic in particular has reflected this change of attitude in its new ‘Project Ireland 2040’ National Development Plan, which makes Sustainable Mobility a key national objective. Whilst Northern Ireland is often slow at responding to the winds of change, even here there has been a palpable shift in attitudes. And now the first-ever All-Island Rail Strategy is being developed to map out a new role and future for rail across Ireland.

The All-Island Rail Review Strategy was jointly announced last year by NI Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon and her southern counterpart Eamon Ryan. The strategy will look at ways to improve the rail network across Ireland as a whole with a particular focus on “better connections to the North-West” of the island, which history has left almost entirely devoid of rail. The Review is due to be completed and published by Summer 2022 – and as part of that process a consultation has begun to secure the views of the public.

‘Into The West’ is the campaign group for rail in counties Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal. As outlined earlier, it was established in 2004 to successfully oppose Stormont’s plan to scrap the Derry-Belfast railway line beyond Ballymena. Into The West won that crucial battle, and followed it up by also successfully campaigning for a new rail station to be created in Derry. In recent years the organisation has been campaigning for seven major improvements that would revolutionise transport across the North West of the island – making that to Transport ministers & officials, MPs, MLA, Councils, TDs, Chambers of Commerce and ordinary members of the public. And it has witnessed a fundamental shift in public opinion on this topic over those years. Where once the idea of bringing rail back to places like Omagh, Armagh or Enniskillen was dismissed as fantasy, it is now considered essential by many people across NI. The absence of even basic infrastructure in counties like Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal is no longer being tolerated, and people are increasingly outspoken in demanding change. The West is awake!

If you want to see rail return to and improved across the west of Ulster, the All-Island Rail Review consultation is the perfect opportunity to have your voice heard. It is essential that as many people as possible from Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal use it to demand the expansion and improvement of rail throughout the West. There will be a lot of voices contributing from elsewhere across the island to demand rail be restored or improved in their area too. So if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity there is a danger the places which shout loudest could become the main focus of this new strategy. Rail will only expand across the West if people believe it is possible and demand that it happens. So we need to ensure that Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal folk speak with a clear and united voice on this key issue for our region’s future.

The seven key improvements that Into The West are encouraging people to request when responding to the Rail Review consultation are :

SEVEN RAIL REQUESTS FOR THE WEST

1) Reopen the Derry-Portadown rail line.

(via Strabane/Lifford, Omagh and Dungannon, Will create a direct rail route to Dublin from Tyrone, the north-west and East Donegal).

2) Reconnect Enniskillen to the rail network.

(From Omagh to Enniskillen, and southwards to Sligo)

3) Faster and more frequent trains between Derry, Coleraine and Belfast

(Including departures every half hour, and fast express service).

4) Connect NI’s 3 airports to the rail network.

5) Reopen the Derry-Letterkenny rail route.

(Offering direct trains from Letterkenny to Dublin, via Derry & Tyrone)

6) Connect Limavady, Ballykelly & Strathfoyle to the rail network.

(Creating a North-West commuter rail network between Derry and Coleraine).

7) Complete the Limerick to Sligo ‘Western Rail Corridor’

(And continue it north through Donegal to Derry)

The deadline to make submissions to the All-Island Rail Review Strategy consultation is 5pm THIS FRIDAY – 21st January 2022.

If you want to see rail return to and improve across counties Tyrone, Fermanagh, Derry and Donegal after 60 years of transport isolation, then please ensure you make a submission to say so today. And please also ask for the seven ‘Requests for the West’ listed above.

The consultation webpage is : www.StrategicRailReview.com/Feedback . You can also submit comments by email to: [email protected]

Steve Bradley is the Chair of ‘Into The West’ – The rail campaign for counties Derry, Tyrone Fermanagh & Donegal.

P.S. It should be added that Into The West supports and works collaboratively with other groups campaigning for rail to be restored and improved elsewhere within NI (e.g. Portadown-Armagh Rail Society). Railworks as a network – such that improvements or expansion in any one area benefits the rest of the network as well. We support any and all improvements to rail, whether in our geographical area or beyond.

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