A personal challenge for Martin McGuinness

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. (2502MM05)
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. (2502MM05)

A unique challenge is being issued to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

It’s from Into the West (ITW), the voluntary group which campaigns for improved rail services for Derry. I’m a member. The challenge is to Mr McGuinness as a Derry man although his constituency isn’t in the city.

ITW is conscious that the Deputy First Minister isn’t a user of Derry’s rail services. He may not be aware that tiny Cullybackey has 19 trains a day while his own city has nine. The situation is explained away by the absence of a short passing loop and signalling near Bellarena. The required work was scheduled for 2014/15 but last year ITW was told there would be a further delay.

All improvements were due to be finished by 2021 but the time-scale seems to have slipped again. The protracted work plan is ‘explained’ by a shortage of funding within the Department of Regional Development (DRD).

ITW is certain the situation wouldn’t be tolerated on any rail line in, or around, Belfast.

It amounts to blatant discrimination against the people of the North West. Particularly in the light of our troubled past, ITW members are amazed that this is acceptable to anyone.

Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson have the power to put things right. They can persuade the Executive and the DRD Minister to ensure a fairer outcome for the people of the North West. Peter Robinson isn’t a Derry man but Martin McGuinness is, so ITW’s challenge is to him.

Difficult as it is to believe, between 1968 and March 2013 no commuter trains arrived into Derry before 9am.

Furthermore, Derry’s station is too small to cope with even existing passenger numbers. Many smaller towns have much grander stations. ITW wants the historic Waterside Station purchased, refurbished and brought back into use. Strangely, Translink refuses even to publish the outcome of the public consultation on this. It was completed on 24th May last year.

ITW welcomes the recent announcement that four Enterprise trains operating between Belfast and Dublin are to be refurbished at a cost of £12m. In addition, longer term plans are being considered for an hourly service on the cross-border route with a journey time under 90 minutes.

Dublin is 100 miles from Belfast. Derry is around ten miles closer. Is there any hope of journey times getting even close to 90 minutes for the shorter journey to Derry? At present our trains take 137 minutes to Great Victoria Street. It was faster in the Victorian era. And, why can’t cross-border services run on through to Derry?

Trains use has grown by 21% since 2009. The largest increase has been on the Derry line despite the fact that services to Coleraine are so inferior.

The solution lies in greater investment in public transport. Only 19% of the DRD’s budget is spent on public transport. This is the lowest level of percentage spending in any part of Ireland or Britain.

ITW has raised its concerns with Translink, NIR, DRD officials, councillors, MLAs, MPs, DRD Ministers and others. All have expressed whole-hearted support but the delays keep on happening.

Now the challenge is to the Derry man who can change things. ITW wants Mr McGuinness to express support for the railway and to act to deliver a fairer outcome for the people of the North West. Over to you, Martin.