‘Huge opportunity’ for rail in Derry, Tyrone and Donegal coming down the tracks - campaigners

Local rail campaigners Into The West have described a series of reports and strategies due to be published over the next six months as representing “a huge opportunity” for rail in our area.

The interior of the new Translink North West Transport Hub at the Waterside Station. DER4319GS - 023
The interior of the new Translink North West Transport Hub at the Waterside Station. DER4319GS - 023

Since 2001 Into The West has been campaigning for rail services to be improved from Derry.

In recent years the local organisation has also begun pushing for previously closed rail lines to be reopened – including from Derry to Strabane/Omagh/Portadown and Derry to Letterkenny. The group have held meetings with various politicians, civil servants and business groups - including NI Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon and the Republic’s Transport Minister Eamon Ryan - to outline the role that improved rail could play for the North West City Region. And their efforts have started to have a positive impact upon a number of reports and strategies currently being development.

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The first is Westminster’s ‘Union Connectivity Review’ (UCR), established in Autumn 2020. Whilst most attention has focused on talk of a tunnel or bridge between Scotland and NI, the review is taking a much wider look at where infrastructure needs improving and Into The West made a detailed submission, describing the West of NI as ‘the UK’s most isolated region’, and calling for £2bn towards a revitalised rail network there.

The UCR’s interim review in March 2021 took those points onboard and acknowledged the need for “faster and higher capacity connections from Belfast to North West Northern Ireland”, and for better infrastructure in the west of NI overall. The committee’s full report is due to be published later this summer, and Into The West are hopeful it will recommend improvements to rail locally.

Into The West Chair Steve Bradley said: “The UCR committee have accepted that infrastructure in the west of NI is sub-standard and needs to improve. We wait to see what changes they will recommend to address that, and hope it will include enhanced rail for the north west.”

Three further studies are due to complete in November. The first is a feasibility study into the third and final phase of track modernisation work on the Derry-Coleraine line. A feasibility study is required before Stormont can approve the £30m funding, which could lead to faster and more frequent services between Belfast and Derry. Running alongside that is a separate but connected feasibility study exploring the creation of new rail stations at Strathfoyle, City of Derry Airport (for Eglinton) and Ballykelly. Mr Bradley said: “Derry’s railway station is the second-most isolated on the island – with the next nearest station being over 21 miles away at Bellerena. That’s why we’ve been campaigning for new halts to be created on the existing line. It would enable rail to become a genuine commuter option for people living in fast growing suburbs.” The third study is looking at what would be required to enable a service every 30 minutes between Derry and Belfast.

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The last of the reports is the new ‘All-Ireland Rail Review’, jointly commissioned by Ministers north and south. Due to be published in Spring 2022, it will set out a strategy for how rail should be improved across the island – with NI Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon confirming that it will include a specific focus upon the north west. Mr Bradley said: “There is an obvious gap in the Irish rail network across the North-West and the border counties. We expect the new All-Island Rail Strategy to look seriously at how to address that, and we hope that it will make the case for extending rail from Derry to Letterkenny and from Derry to Portadown – restoring a direct route between our region and Dublin.”

He added: “Rail is undeniably having a resurgence again - with people in Derry, Donegal and Tyrone no longer prepared to suffer the poor infrastructure we’ve faced here for the last 50-plus years. There is a long way to go before we see concrete improvements to the rail network in the North West, but we hope that this series of reviews and strategies will mark the beginning of the end for our second class transport infrastructure. It therefore makes the next 6 months crucial to the future of rail in our area.”