Councillors back ambitious NW railway network upgrade campaign

Repair works on the Derry rail line.
Repair works on the Derry rail line.

Derry & Strabane Councillors have vowed to add their weight to “trailblazing” Into The West’s campaign to see first class rail links re-established in the North West.

Veteran Into The West campaigner and rail expert Jim McBride and fellow member Steve Bradley delivered a presentation on ‘The Case for Rail in the North West Region’ before Derry City & Strabane District Council’s Governance and Strategic Planning Committee on Tuesday.

Rail expert and Into the West veteran Jim McBride.

Rail expert and Into the West veteran Jim McBride.

Mr Bradley said there was a “clear disparity” in rail provision in the north west on both sides of the border, with the only five counties having no rail connection all located in the province of Ulster. “There’s a gap and we are keen to see the start of a process to see something done to resolve that,” he said.

Of the 54 stations across NI, Mr Bradley said there was just three west of the Bann and 28 in the Greater Belfast area. He said infrastructure here was substandard, as evidenced by the fact that, while Derry has one train that can reach Belfast before the start of the working day at 9am, there are four from Coleraine. While there are five trains to Coleraine from Belfast during peak times of the week, there are just three to Derry, he pointed out, adding that, although ticketing is available from Coleraine and all stations east to Dublin, it is not from Derry to Dublin. On Sundays, Coleraine has 13 trains to Belfast, while Derry has less than half that number. Many of these issues, Mr Bradley said, “could be resolved tomorrow” if the authorities ordered them to be.

The key economic benefits of rail infrastructure were outlined including job creaton, tourism and cementing the city as the regional capital.

Into The West also cited statistics which showed than more than one in three households in Derry and 40 per cent in Strabane had no access to a car, with rail also a viable alternative to private vehicles, with positive benefits in terms of climate change and less air pollution.

Jim McBride related how Into The West came about 18 years ago after the government tried to close the Derry to Coleraine stretch of railway.

He also spoke of how the north west had a comprehensive rail network until the 1960s, and warned that every penny of rail infrastructure secured here since has had to be fought for, including campaigns to upgrade the track and secure the restoration of the Waterside Station.

Mr McBride expressed concern that Phase Three of the current works - the line upgrade to enable a more frequent service from Derry - was now delayed until 2027, six years after it was due to start. He warned that Phase Three was vital for faster journey times, greater frequency, through trains to Dublin and potential line extensions to Strabane and Letterkenny. He also said it could facilitate a new suburban substation near Eglinton/ Strathfoyle and the City of Derry Airport area. He warned that, at present, there was one loop between Coleraine and Derry and, by contrast, six between Coleraine and Mossley West. “There’s a real issue of discrimination against the North West,” he said.

“If you have a couple of passing loops, you could have a much more frequent service, many more people would use it and putting people on trains takes people off roads.”

Mr Bradley added: “There is no reason we could not have a 90 minute service from Derry/Londonderry to Belfast. We desperately need you guys to say to the Department of Infrastructure: it is not good enough.”

Sinn Fein Colr. Mickey Cooper said his party believed rail expansion “is the direction of travel”, and spoke of how, as Ministers, his party’s Conor Murphy and Chris Hazard had been instrumental in saving the Derry line and securing the more recent upgrades.

He said railway infrastructure here had been “gradually wound down” over the past century and, referring to a map of railway tracks, said: “Those missing teeth didn’t happen by accident”.

“From our perspective, the cross border approach is absolutely key,” he said, adding that the importance of Phase Three was a “no brainer economically and socially”.

Upgrade works at the Victorian Waterside station are continuing.

Upgrade works at the Victorian Waterside station are continuing.

Proposing the Committee back a range of measures requested by Into The West, SDLP Colr. Martin Reilly said the figures and the gaps on the map spoke for themselves.

He said that the huge increase in passenger numbers locally following recent upgrade works showed “people have voted with their feet”.

Councillors have agreed to help formally lobby DoI for Phase 3, adapt plans to include more ambitious rail strategies, and to work with neighbouring Councils to lobby for enhanced rail provision across the NW. They also agreed to assist in trying to secure funding for feasibility studies into extending rail to Strabane and Letterkenny. SDLP Colr. Sinead McLaughlin said Into The West had “trailblazed the way” with their ambition and foresight and had not only saved the Derry line but had secured its future.

UUP Alderman Derek Hussey said the issue of connectivity for the west was vital and said Danny Kennedy had also been instrumental in securing advances locally. He said he was very keen on the potential for an extended network into Tyrone and that a station by the airport - providing the only rail/ air connectivity link on the island - was a “tremendous opportunity”.