Veteran rail campaigner Eamonn McCann has cautioned against greenway expansion in the North West pitting natural allies, the rail and cycling lobbies, against one another.
The Foyle MLA pointed to bikes versus trains wars in Leitrim and Mayo as a situation he doesn’t want repeated in Derry.
Mr McCann, speaking during the last meeting of the Stormont Infrastructure Committee, heaped praise on the network of walkways and cycleways, which now criss-cross his hometown, but warned of unintended consequences.
He said transport planners needed to ensure old rail routes that could potentially be re-opened aren’t cut off by walkways and cycleways.
Referring to Derry’s riverside walkways, Mr McCann said: “There is no question that it is a tremendous amenity.
“It is a lovely place to go for a walk in the evening, with the river on one side and the old Great Northern Railway line, which is still there, on the other.
“It is rather rusted, but, nevertheless, it is still in place. It is not unique in that, of course.”
Mr McCann warned that cycleway development shouldn’t come at the expense of rail infrastructure investment, something he has long been a champion for as a member of Into The West.
“You mentioned Donegal: if you drive down to Donegal through the Barnesmore Gap and you look up to your left, you will see the railway line, with the telegraph poles still there, although it has been closed for many years. Many people who travel that road must sigh and say, ‘That must have been a wonderful journey halfway up the hill in Donegal.’
“The line is still there. Sorry for the long preamble, but this may be an aspect that is not widely publicised or known.
“There is a concern among rail campaigners, North and South, who campaign to have lines reopened - I am among them - that that option will be seriously damaged or even removed by the introduction of greenways. It may come as a surprise to people that there are bitter disputes between rail advocates and greenways advocates - for example, in Mayo and Leitrim - and people get very angry. Is that a factor in your thinking? Is it even adjacent to the thinking about greenways?”
Dr Andrew Grieve, the head of the cycling unit at the Department, said greenways will be developed on old rail lines but not where there is a potential for realistic rail expansion.
“The Department has an interest in all kinds of transport. We support bus, rail, walking and cycling,” he said.
“We have adopted the approach that, in the longer term, rail may be an option on some of the routes but, on most of them, it probably will not be.
“The development of greenways along more minor rail routes in areas where no one is talking about the opening of rail any time in the near future - Omagh/Fintona to Enniskillen, the east Derry line from Dungannon to Cookstown right up the River Bann - are still good candidates for going ahead and doing a greenway,” said Dr Grieve.