Recent passenger numbers show that rail usage is booming in the north-west area, one year after an hourly train service was introduced between Derry and Belfast.
Figures secured from Translink by local rail campaigning group, Into the West, show that there has been a 40 per cent year-on-year increase in passenger numbers using the Derry-to-Coleraine stretch of the railway line.
The increase is the result of a new hourly service which was introduced last July - an increase of 125,000 train journeys.
This is the largest growth in demand anywhere on the island of Ireland, and points to a bright future for Derry’s rail network - which was threatened with closure only a decade ago.
The overall Derry-to-Belfast route experienced a nine per cent increase in passenger numbers across the same period (July 2017 to July 2018), with Derry driving that growth.
Statistics also show that more people are now using rail across Northern Ireland than at any time in NI Railway’s 50 year history, with a record 15 million journeys made across 2017.
And 2017 was also a record year for rail in the Republic too, with 45.5 million passengers carried there - a 6.3 per cent rise.
Spokesperson for Into the West, Steve Bradley, commented: “With rail experiencing a record year north and south of the border, it’s fantastic news that Derry has been the star performer within that.
“People are flocking to trains in Derry as the comfortable, relaxing and environmentally sustainable way to travel between here and Belfast, ” he added.
“Into the West has always argued that improvements to local rail services would unleash huge latent demand, and the 40 per cent rise in passenger numbers is proof of that fact.
“Rail is now firmly on the travel agenda for visitors, commuters and workers in Derry,” claimed Mr. Bradley.
“However, it also needs to be on the local political agenda to ensure that it attracts the further investment it deserves.”
Into the West has identified three key projects which are essential to ensure that rail can continue to grow and deliver for the people of the North-West.
Firstly - the final stage of works to modernise the Derry to Coleraine line (known as Phase III) must take place as soon as possible.
Steve Bradley explains: “The Phase III works on the Derry to Coleraine line will complete the modernisation of the track and make it fit for the 21st century.
“That will result in faster journey times and enable a service to Belfast every half hour. And it will also open up the possibility of a new train station for the Eglinton area, which would be a huge boost to Derry’s fast-growing eastern suburbs.
“The Phase III works are supposed to take place in 2021, but funding wasn’t allocated before Stormont collapsed. It is vital that the funding and timetable for this work be confirmed as soon as possible so the North-West can finally get the full benefits of a modernised railway line, ” said Steve.
The second key project Into the West are calling for is a feasibility study into extending Derry’s railway line to Strabane and Letterkenny.
Steve Bradley added: “Derry has the most isolated train station on the entire Irish rail network - with a 21 miles gap until the next nearest stop.
Strabane is only 14 miles from Derry and large sections of the old railway route between the two towns still exist.
“It would be a huge boost to the north-west economy if Derry and Strabane were connected again by rail, especially as well over a third of households in both areas don’t own a car.
“And it would physically bind the Derry City and Strabane District Council area much more together, ” he maintained.
“It was encouraging to hear West Tyrone MLA, Daniel McCrossan, add his voice recently to calls for the railway line to be extended.
“We need ALL local politicians and the councils to join us in pushing for feasability studies to be conducted into bringing rail back to Strabane and Letterkenny.”
The third key initiative Into the West is calling for is for Stormont’s 2014 Rail Strategy to be updated to reflect the rail boom in Derry.
Mr Bradley went on: “The Department for Infrastructure has rejected suggestions of any rail extensions from Derry because they aren’t mentioned in Stormont’s 2014 Rail Strategy.
“That strategy lists the priorities for rail investment in NI up to 2030, but was written at a time when Derry was the weak link in the network.
“As the recent surge in passenger numbers locally has shown, however, things have changed dramatically since then - so the Rail Strategy should be revised to reflect that fact,” he said.
“It should now include feasability studies into extending the rail network to Strabane and Letterkenny, plus a new station on Derry’s eastern suburbs.
“When the facts change, it’s essential that Government departments change their strategies, too”.
Mr Bradley concluded: “Evidence shows that there is growing demand for rail in Derry, and that further investment will increase it even more.
“We can’t fulfill our role as a regional capital without the proper infrastructure needed to do so - including rail. It is, therefore, essential that our council and local politicians lobby for the three key projects that will deliver the future rail investment that Derry deserves.
“That would mean faster and more frequent trains now, and the possibility of new stations and new routes in the future, enabling Derry to genuinely serve as a regional capital and to, hopefully, continue as Ireland’s railway boom town.”