Derry Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson says there’s no rail network in Ireland at the moment, but a concerted campaign in Europe could make it a reality - and create vital transport links for Derry and Donegal.
A century ago, Ireland had one of the most comprehensive rail networks in Western Europe. Since then, the ubiquitous motorcar and juggernaut lorries have replaced rail as the preferred mode of transport.
That has to change.
I had a very informative meeting recently with the ‘Western Arc’ Campaign group. Following that, I have tabled an amendment which could help set us well on the way towards re-establishing an all-Ireland rail network.
The amendment, if accepted, would see the inclusion of that section of the Western Arc rail network (West/North West Region) - extending from Belfast through Derry, Sligo, Knock, Galway to Shannon/Limerick - included in the next round of EU funding 2014-2020.
That would be under the EU’s CEF programme - the “Connecting Europe Facility” which finances projects which fill the missing links in Europe’s energy, transport and digital backbone.
It would be part of the Trans European Network (TEN) in the new TEN-T Programme.
The network is about allowing goods and people to circulate quickly and easily between and in member states.
I believe re-establishment of an all-island rail network will attract support from the EU. The Executive and the Irish government should develop joint proposals for the deployment of European Structural Funds for such an ecologically protective and economically productive venture.
Such a project could form the basis for redressing the disastrous effects of the economic collapse of the banking and construction sectors throughout the island. The EU, in its concern about the disastrous consequences of climate change, is already considering radical proposals to reinstate rail as the preferred option for freight and passenger traffic in the future.
We need to accept that in Ireland we do not have a ‘rail network’ but we need one and that is what this amendment is intended to achieve.
What we have is a ‘line’ connecting Belfast to Dublin, a link to Larne and what passes for a link between Belfast and Derry which is so sub-standard the majority of commuters will not use it. Donegal, Sligo, Galway and much west of Shannon are no better served.
What is required is collaboration between Belfast and Dublin on a strategic plan, driven and co-coordinated at Ministerial level, to create a proper all-island rail network. This should also enjoy the active support of all MEPs - North and South - in lobbying for inclusion of this amendment for consideration in the next round of EU funding for 2014-2020.
If successful, the end result would include a comprehensive reassessment of how we move freight as well as passengers. The use of an all-island rail passenger/freight network would reduce road traffic congestion and protect the environment by reducing toxic emissions.
It would reconnect the southern system up with the lines in the North to establish a proper all-Ireland network.
The economic benefits of regenerating an all-Ireland rail network should not be underestimated. It would address the infrastructural deficiencies that are often cited as the main factors for failure to attract sustainable investment to regions outside the Dublin/Belfast axis.
A lack of imaginative thinking is apparent on many fronts attached to transport policy, such as the lack of train connections to airports despite rail lines passing within short distances from terminals. The Centre for Cross Border Studies should be tasked to firm-up a cost analysis of such a project in preparation for presentation of a case to Europe.
We must think imaginatively. The linking of ports, airports and railways should be an essential element of a future transport network.
‘Strategic transport planning’ is one of the areas listed for co-operation and implementation under the All-Ireland Ministerial Council’s remit. The AIMC could lead the way in developing and implementing such a visionary transportation plan.
The Ministerial Council has the potential to effect fundamental and positive change for the benefit of all the people on this island. We need to re-establish the rail link from Derry joining with the Belfast to Dublin line at Newry, and the extension of the Belfast/Derry link to Letterkenny/Sligo and beyond as part of the Western Arc rail network (West/North West Region). This work, and the associated new investment, would not only transform the economic fortunes of the North West of Ireland but would help strengthen the economic fabric of the island as a whole.
Sinn Féin is under no illusion about the massive financial investment a regeneration programme of this nature would involve. However, the Executive and the Irish government must realise that the solution to problems such as under-development, devastating damage to the environment, vandalism of our cultural heritage etc., lies in the development and implementation of long-term transportation strategies. And there is much untapped financial assistance available at European level if the political will exists to present the project as an integral part of the Trans European Network (TEN).