Public debate needed on train station plans

It will have been assumed by some that the vote by city councillors last week in favour of the Old Waterside Station as terminus for the upgraded rail line would be more or less the end of the matter: the elected representatives had declared with one voice that this was their preference from the four proposed options - retain the existing station, refurbish the existing station, build a new station adjacent to the Peace Bridge and bring the Old Station back into use.

But the evidence suggests that Ilex and Translink had made their minds long ago that the new terminus should be located adjacent to the Peace Bridge at the edge of the Ebrington complex and are unlikely to pay heed to the views of councillors or anyone else. Both bodies seem blithely unconcerned that neither has been elected.

Ilex has a huge vested interest in plumping for the Ebrington site. The “urban regeneration company” (URC) was established in 2003 by the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) to come up with plans for reviving the North West - specifically to develop Ebrington and Fort George. It has hardly covered itself in glory since.

Last year’s report by independent consultants and the more recent internal review under the auspices of OFMDFM delivered devastating critiques of Ilex’s coherence and competence and the propriety of some of its decisions. The reports have had the effect of making Ilex even more anxious - some might say desperate - to use the upgrade of the rail line to enhance its own credibility by having the terminus located on its Ebrington site.

Evidence that Translink and Ilex have been dead set on this solution and that such consultations as have happened have been a sham emerges from a “Project Brief” issued by Translink in May last year. This tells that 50 percent of the £60,000 cost of Translink’s planned feasibility study would be donated by Ilex. Which to say the least calls the integrity of the process into question.

The Project Brief lists the four options, then states: “The project is aimed at investigating the potential to relocate the existing railway station to the site proposed by Ilex.”

The Brief declares that any feasibility study would require surveys of the Ebrington site, the existing station and the Old Station. The next paragraph lists the matters the surveys would have to take into account. These include “the differential ground levels across the Fort Ebrington site” and “two conceptual layouts for the Fort Ebringon site.” None of the other options set out in the previous paragraph rates a mention.

Any reading of the Translink document suggests that the fact that the Ebrington site suited Ilex was the only criterion which mattered. Other proposals - whether from elected representatives, rail users, rail workers, environmental campaigners, anyone - will have automatically have been tossed into the rubbish bin, probably unread. Had it been left to Ilex, discussion of the location of a new terminus would never have arisen. The rail line might already have been closed. The “urban regeneration company” played no role whatever in the campaign which was required to persuade the Department of Regional Development to find funds for renewing the track.

The case for the Old Station has been set out in a position paper published by Into The West and in a briefing issued last month by the Walled City Partnership (WCP).

The structure is a valuable part of Derry’s built heritage. It was commissioned in 1872 by the old Northern Counties Railway Company and designed by architect John Lanyon specifically to reflect Derry’s status as a regional capital.

It opened amid great ceremony in 1875. As the WCP document tells, it is a vintage Victorian building, in Italianate style, built from boulder-faced sandstone. Its distinctive clock tower was specified 40 years ago by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society as being of Grade A importance.

“Heritage is one of the most tangible legacies from past generations and is an expression of our community’s ‘culture’ in the fullest sense of the word,” the WCP observes.

Doubts in recent years about the importance of retaining other pieces of our built heritage - Tillie’s, Hamilton’s, etc. - have focused on the difficulty of identifying new uses to give them life. In contrast, the Old Station can be restored to its original function. It is the last original terminus building left standing in the North. There is nothing sentimental about seeing it as the perfect location for the new terminus.

The Ilex site would require new roads, and car-park provision either at Browning Drive/Limavady Road or off the King Street roundabout. We need to be alert for any attempt by Ilex or Translink to exclude this spending from any estimate of the cost of a new build.

There is no structure in Derry which symbolises so triumphantly the resilience of the city down through the decades.

It survived the threatened closure of the line under the Benson Report in the 1960s.

It was bombed twice in the 1970s. Refurbishment by Caroline Dickson allowed it to survive first as home of a radio station, then as a furniture warehouse.

Now there is a chance to return it to its full glory.

If the opportunity isn’t taken, if Ilex is allowed for its own reasons to do what the bombers couldn’t accomplish, if this solid piece of our culture is let lie derelict and in danger of demolition, some of us will be very hard-pressed to defend Derry’s entitlement to be styled a City of Culture.

The case for the Old Station should at the very least be debated in public. Ilex has so far run away from debate. But one way or another, the debate must be had.

Read more from Eamonn McCann in the Journal every Tuesday