Hamill’s Beat - The next train will be sometime next year

TWIN TRACK APPROACH... Is public policy for Derry and the North West out of step and out of date?
TWIN TRACK APPROACH... Is public policy for Derry and the North West out of step and out of date?

Into the West (ITW) have been lobbying in support of our railway for many years now and it seems that the group can’t afford to relax its efforts just yet.

Back in the days of ‘direct’ rule, Belfast-based civil servants thought the line beyond Ballymena no longer mattered. For a time its prospects looked bleak as the administrators tried to shrink the ‘Pale’ east of the Bann to just about 30 miles around Belfast.

ITW helped to ensure they didn’t get away with it. The lobby group galvanised public opinion and in time enough elected representatives came on board, so to speak, to save the line. Now it seems the group will have to remain vigilant for a while yet.

ITW’s campaign has succeeded so far because their case is unanswerable. Around the world, railways are coming back. So it is in the rest of Ireland and in Britain. Few things in life are as powerful as an idea whose time has come, or come back again. Why, ITW asked, should public policy for Derry and the North West be out of step and out of date?

Investing in roads on its own can’t solve the problem of congestion. Traffic just multiplies in time to fill the space available. Trains can move people far more efficiently than buses or cars and the longer-term solution is to balance investment in roads with investment in railways. We know this works as even with poor track and no advertising, new trains have already drawn a huge increase in passengers to the Derry line.

The problem is that success comes at a price. Upgrading the track means that it will be closed between July 29 and sometime in March next year. Translink say a direct bus substitution service will operate between Derry and Coleraine via Limavady. Contrary to what ITW were earlier led to believe, however, it’s now thought there may be no bus substitution to serve Bellarena and Castlerock stations. Rail passengers there will have to use existing bus services and they don’t run on Sundays.

Obviously investment in the line should secure its longer-term future but there’s no room for complacency. Passenger numbers could fall during the closure and an advertising campaign may be needed to bring them back when the line re-opens. Practically nothing has been spent on promoting the Derry line in the past. Translink’s advertising budget has been heavily biased towards promoting the lesser used Belfast to Dublin line. Isn’t that strange?

The other major item on ITW’s agenda is Derry’s fine old Victorian station. Having looked objectively at the options for a decent railway terminus for the city, ITW members are convinced that the old station is a clear winner. The pros and cons have been exhaustively rehearsed so I’ll just mention one vital point. The station needs good road access and adequate car parking for park and ride passengers. That’s essential to attract people off the roads and onto the rails.

Duke Street roundabout provides the perfect solution and there’s an underused multi-storey car park across the street. Contrast that with the idea of shoe-horning a station into the tight space between Ebrington and the river with only limited road access. Don’t rail users and potential rail users matter more than a vanity project for already much criticised urban ‘regeneration’ company Ilex? Are they called a ‘regeneration’ company only in a sort of ironic sense?