STEVE BRADLEY points the way forward for the future of railways in the North West region
Last week saw Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Planning Committee bring to an end the debate over what type of railway station this city will have for decades to come.
Regardless of which side of the argument you were on - and I was firmly in the camp which believed that Translink’s plans were not ambitious enough – it has. undoubtedly. brought questions of rail and heritage to the forefront of people’s minds here.
In the early days of the debate, some local politicians remarked that their voters didn’t use or care much about Derry’s railway service or heritage.
3,000 petition signatures later - with huge newspaper and radio coverage and hundreds of people engaging with the issue on social media – and the level of interest that the issue stirred up locally came as a surprise to all.
A hitherto latent interest in built heritage and rail has been awoken locally; it feels like a watershed moment. A new genie is out of the bottle in Derry. The public have made clear that they expect our regional capital to have the kind of high quality public transport infrastructure they see in similar cities elsewhere ; that they want Derry’s heritage valued and enhanced ; and that they are no longer prepared to uncritically accept whatever gets offered them by outside bodies .
The days of believing that there are no votes in rail or heritage here are clearly at an end.
Now that the decision on how to reinstate our historic station has been made, it is essential this doesn’t amount to ‘Derry’s lot’ when it comes to rail. The focus must now move on to what other improvements and investments are essential to ensure that rail can play an even greater role within the life of Derry and its people. And, in this, three key projects stand out.
The biggest limitation facing Derry’s rail service at the moment is speed. It currently takes 2hrs and 12mins to complete the 90mile journey from Derry’s Waterside to Belfast’s Great Victoria Street Station - an average speed of 40mph. That is substantially slower than driving or taking the bus, and with the A6 road being improved that disparity in journey time will increase further. It is,therefore, essential that the journey time between Derry and Belfast by rail is reduced dramatically – ideally to no more than 90 minutes.
Fortunately, there is a proposal on the table to do just that. The track between Derry and Coleraine is of a poor quality with numerous speed restrictions and insufficient places for trains to pass each other.
A project to completely relay and re-signal that track began a decade ago. Phases 1 and 2 of that work are now complete and enabled the introduction of an hourly service from Derry to Belfast last July (with passenger numbers up by more than a third since). The third and final phase of that work (costing approx £30m) was due to happen by 2021 but currently has no funding. Once that final phase is completed, journeys between Derry and Belfast will be significantly faster. And their frequency could increase to every half hour – both of which would revolutionise the appeal of rail in our city.
The most important next step for rail in Derry is, therefore, for our council and MLAs to ensure that Stormont allocates the funding to complete Phase 3 works on the Derry-Coleraine line as soon as possible.
An additional challenge facing rail here is that our station is the most isolated in Ireland. You have to travel for 21 miles from Derry before you reach our next nearest station at Bellarena (population 300). Towns like Coleraine, Ballymena, Lisburn and Portadown all have a network of neighbouring suburban stations, which make commuting by rail a viable option there. But not here, despite the railway line running close to some key population centres on Derry’s eastern outskirts.
Phase 3 of works on the line offer a unique opportunity to address the isolation of our station, as a new passing point is required between Derry and Bellarena to enable trains going in opposite directions to pass each other.
Most passing points already in the rail line are located at stations, which require double tracks. So if we’re going to create a new passing point somewhere near Derry, let’s ensure it’s in a location which can serve as a new suburban station - either now or in future.
An ideal location for this would be immediately to the east of City of Derry Airport, where a new multi-purpose ‘Foyle Parkway’ station could be created to fulfil three distinct roles.
Firstly, it would serve City of Derry Airport, expanding its catchment area, making it
the only airport in Ireland connected by rail, and increasing the value of the council-owned facility.
Secondly, it would act as a local station for Eglinton, Greysteel, Strathfoyle and Ballykelly (combined population 10,300).
And, third, it would provide a new Park and Rail facility for Derry to help tackle our growing city centre congestion. It is therefore vital that the new passing loop created between Derry and Bellarena is strategically located to enable the creation of a much-needed suburban rail station for our city.
The third key project to improve rail in the north-west would be the extension of our infrastructure to Strabane and Letterkenny.
Stormont’s rail strategy includes plans to investigate extending the existing rail network from Antrim to Castledawson (combined population 25,500) and Portadown to Dungannon (combined population 36,000) – but says nothing at al about new lines in the north-west.
Extending our existing railway line to Strabane would cost a small fraction of the £150m to widen the A5 between the two towns – and it would generate new employment, help bind our new council area together, and be the first step in plugging the gap in Ireland’s rail network between Derry and Sligo.
In addition, a third road bridge is planned between Newbuildings and the Letterkenny Rd. By also incorporating a rail line within that structure, a new EU-funded rail route to Letterkenny could also be enabled via a spur from the Derry-Strabane line.
That would not only signal the return of rail to Donegal but potentially also to Derry’s cityside via a new station on the Letterkenny Road – stimulating new homes and employment to the south of our city centre.
The creation of a new £27m railway station here is great news for Derry (even if it isn’t being done in the way that local people wanted). It is essential that this doesn’t mark ‘the end of the line’ for rail improvements in our city, however.
With congestion slowly strangling Derry and more than one in three households here without access to a car, we cannot build a fair or sustainable city by focusing solely on roads.
The recent Waterside Station debate has unearthed real passion for better rail provision in our city, and that genie is firmly out of the bottle now.
We must ensure that further rail improvements are secured here to deliver the good quality public transport infrastructure that a modern regional capital needs and deserves. It is time to create a new golden age for rail in our city and the north-west.
Steve Bradley is a commentator and regeneration consultant. He can be followed on Twitter at @bradley_steve