Hamill’s Beat - Derry needs a long term rail solution

The former Waterside Railway Station. 2001JM65
The former Waterside Railway Station. 2001JM65

Railways are expensive. We can just about maintain the lines we have. Any new investment in the west is out of the question. But don’t worry, there’s some good news. We may be able to afford improvements in the east and particularly in the greater Belfast area.

That was the message recently delivered to a Derry audience. Translink and Department of Regional Development (DRD) officials were hosting a ‘consultation’ on railway investment. It was one of the most infuriating meetings I’ve ever been to.

There was a complete lack of awareness that the message would be unpopular here in Derry. Considerations of social justice or geographic disadvantage didn’t feature.

Some of our government and railway officials are like the 18th century French monarchs from the House of Bourbon. You know what happened to them – they were swept away in a revolution. Talleyrand said of them that, “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing”. Unfortunately our “Bourbons” are alive and well and thriving in the happy land flowing with milk and honey east of the Bann.

A presentation to the meeting virtually ruled out any investment west of the Bann, beyond what has already been pledged to upgrade our line.

This is despite the fact that passenger numbers on the Derry line have soared from 631,000 in 2002 to 1.56 million in 2012. In the ten years passenger numbers have increased by 147%.

That far exceeds the increase on any other line in the north. In the same period passenger numbers fell by 22% on the Belfast to Dublin line.

Surely if ever there was an argument for further investment; that was it? Despite that, only the last two of eight investment options presented to the meeting had anything at all to say about the west.

We’re grateful for the good bus service (212) we have to Belfast with its excellent park and ride facilities. It’s Translink’s flag ship bus service. The problem is that it’s already badly affected by traffic congestion, particularly on the M2.

The answer can’t simply be more and more investment in roads. That can only ameliorate congestion in the short term. In time traffic will swell to fill the space available. A longer-term solution is to improve rail services. Railways are far more efficient than roads for moving passengers.

Despite this, the level of spending on public transport (and particularly on rail) compared with spending on roads is far lower here than it is in Scotland, for example.

Even with the existing line via the north coast and with trains stopping at all stations the train is already almost as quick as the bus at peak times. It would be easy to make big improvements, particularly with the introduction of an express inter-city service. It’s a question of commitment.

It has been entirely obvious for some time that it’s the commitment that’s lacking. This is reinforced by the fact that the current improvements to the Derry line are years behind similar improvements to the track from Belfast to Coleraine and Portrush.

The fact that the Derry improvements happened at all was largely due to pressure from the Into the West lobby group. For at least the next two years Coleraine will be served by twice as many trains as Derry.

Staff numbers at Waterside station have been falling while they have been increasing in Coleraine. The railway’s managers are either based in Belfast or in Coleraine. A recent timetable consultation was originally only scheduled to take place in Coleraine.

A meeting here was only conceded in response to local pressure and when it did happen, the choices were all expressed in terms of trains leaving Belfast. And until now little or nothing has been spent on promoting the Derry line.

Are we content with the situation or are we going to expect more on an ongoing basis after the line re-opens later this month?