New Campaign Calls for Reopening of ‘North West Rail Corridor’ – Giving West of NI a Direct Route to Belfast/Dublin…

A campaign has been launched calling for the reopening of a key railway line that served the West of Northern Ireland up until the 1960s.

Lobby group ‘Into The West’ campaigns for the improvement and expansion of rail across counties Derry/Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal. The organisation was founded in 2004 when they successfully defeated a proposal by civil servants to shut the Derry-Belfast rail line west of Ballymena. Since then they have also secured a major track upgrade of the Derry-Coleraine line and a new transport hub at Derry’s historic Duke Street station. In recent years the organisation has widened its focus onto making the case for the restoration of key rail routes across the west of the province of Ulster. And now they have launched a campaign for what they consider to be a top priority rail-reopening for the island, and the number one cross-border initiative.

It is almost 60 years since trains last ran on the Great Northern line between Derry and Portadown. That route included stations at Strabane, Omagh and Dungannon – plus smaller stops along the way – before trains travelled directly on towards Belfast and Dublin via Portadown. The line was controversially closed in 1965 in a decision that ended a century of rail access for Tyrone and Donegal and stripped the west of Ulster of most of its infrastructure. The closure also severed a vital link between the north-west of the island and Dublin, and ushered in decades of car dependency. Prior to that the railway line between Letterkenny and Derry had also been closed in 1953, which greatly impacted the role of NI’s second city as a key transport hub and regional capital. Meanwhile County Fermanagh lost its railways in 1957, adding to the sense of that county’s isolation from the powers-that-be in Belfast. Since these closures two whole generations have been raised in Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal without access to a transport mode that much of the rest of the island takes for granted. And that has had a negative impact upon the economic growth, population and tourism appeal of the western half of Northern Ireland.

The public’s desire to see rail return and expand across the North-West of the island has remained strong ever since. This was shown earlier this year when the public consultation for the ‘All-Island Rail Review Strategy’ received its highest number of contributions from the Fermanagh-Omagh and Derry-Strabane Districts. This confirmed the huge interest that exists across the west of NI for the return and expansion of rail.

Into The West have therefore launched a major campaign that seeks to turn that aspiration into a reality. They are calling for the restoration of what they have christened ‘The North West Rail Corridor’ – which is a combination of two former rail segments into a new corridor that will reconnect the largest towns in west Ulster back into the island’s rail network.

PLEASE INSERT THE VISUAL IMAGE OF THE CORRIDOR ROUTE HERE (THE LIST OF TOWNS AND PICTURES, NOT THE MAP)

The North West Rail Corridor route would see trains start in Letterkenny and travel through Derry, Strabane, Omagh and Dungannon to Portadown, from where they would continue on to either Dublin or Belfast via the existing network. Indicative journey times would be 2hrs 45mins from Derry to Dublin, 1hr 25mins from Omagh to Belfast and 20mins from Dungannon to Portadown. It would restore rail access to the largest counties on the island that are currently denied it (Tyrone = 180,000 population, Donegal = 170,000) ; put key towns like Omagh, Dungannon, Strabane and Letterkenny back on the rail map, and restore a much-needed transport corridor between the west of Ulster and both Belfast and Dublin. Into The West highlight that it would also create a foundation stone for further rail re-openings across the West of NI in future. The UK Government’s 2021 ‘Union Connectivity Review’ identified Enniskillen’s lack of trains as a barrier to its tourism potential, and the most feasible way to return rail to that town is via Omagh. So realistically the way to get trains back to Fermanagh is to reopen the North West Rail Corridor. In addition – Mid-Ulster is the fastest growing part of NI and a significant industrial centre. Restoring the North West Rail Corridor to Dungannon would therefore enable future possible re-openings north from there to fast growing towns like Cookstown and Magherafelt – creating the eventual possibility of a Mid-Ulster Loop of rail around Lough Neagh connecting on to Antrim.

The impact of reopening the North West Rail Corridor would be much broader than just transport, however. By linking these towns and counties directly to the island’s main economic and tourism hubs in Belfast and Dublin it would also enable employment, tourism and population growth in places that currently feel neglected and left on the periphery. And it would help bind the ‘North West City Region’ of Derry, Strabane and Letterkenny much closer together. No other initiative would have as profound an impact upon Tyrone, Donegal, Fermanagh and the West of NI as restoring rail access would. And no other rail project on the island would connect such a large number of people across so many significant towns and counties. That’s why campaigners believe the North West Rail Corridor should be a top priority rail reopening for governments north and south, and their number one focus for cross-border funding. For decades the West of NI has been left feeling disconnected, disadvantaged and disregarded by its lack of infrastructure. Committing to the North West Rail Corridor would enable the authorities north and south to prove that they are serious about addressing that.

Into The West have launched their campaign in-advance of the ‘All-Island Rail Review Strategy’ findings, which are likely to be published in the New Year (though it requires an NI Infrastructure Minister to be in-office to enable its release). Their aim is to galvanise public support across the region and beyond to influence that report’s findings and to build a head of steam around making the North West Rail Corridor a priority reopening.

Into The West are also holding a series of public events about the North West Rail Corridor in each of the main towns along the route. The Derry, Letterkenny and Omagh events will feature a guest speaker from the inspirational ‘Campaign for Borders Rail’, which successfully lobbied for the reopening of 35 miles of railway line through the rural Borders region of Scotland in 2015. Anyone interested in finding out more about the North West Rail Corridor & the campaign to re-open it is encouraged to attend these free meetings. Registering in advance isn’t essential, but will help with managing numbers (see Eventbrite registration links on www.IntoTheWest.org ).

Into The West are asking everyone who would like to see this vital transport corridor restored and rail returned across the West of NI to visit their website (www.IntoTheWest.org), and to also consider becoming a member of the organisation (£10 adults, £5 unwaged). They are also calling on people to sign and share the petition for this campaign = Petition · Restore the North West Rail Corridor. · Change.org .

In an era of climate change, poor air quality, increasing road congestion and unbalanced regional development, it is no longer acceptable for the west of NI to be left almost entirely without rail. There is a strong case for the restoration of the North West Rail Corridor – but it won’t happen without a huge display of public support and pressure. It is therefore essential that people across the West of NI and beyond get behind this campaign to show politicians north and south that the public demand the reintroduction of rail across the region. It’s finally time to close the huge gap in the map of rail provision north and south.

Steve Bradley is Chair of ‘Into The West’ = the rail campaign for counties Derry/Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal. Into The West works closely with other campaigns on the island which seek to restore rail in areas like Portadown-Armagh and Connacht’s ‘Western Rail Corridor’.

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