OPINION: All-Ireland rail network is the way of the future - Foyle MP

Foyle Sinn Fein MP Elisha McCallion.
Foyle Sinn Fein MP Elisha McCallion.

Politicians in Ireland continuously talk about investment in the rail ‘network’ as if such a network actually exists. Well it doesn’t.

A century ago, Ireland had one of the most comprehensive rail networks in Western Europe. Since then the ubiquitous motorcar and juggernaut lorries have replaced rail as the preferred mode of transport.

We need to accept that we do not have a ‘rail network’ but we need one. What we have is a ‘line’ connecting Derry to Belfast and a ‘line’ connecting Belfast to Dublin, with a link to Larne in the north and south of the border Donegal, Sligo and much west of Shannon are no better served.

What is required is collaboration between Belfast and Dublin on a strategic plan, driven and co-ordinated at the highest level to create a proper all-island rail network. This would include a comprehensive reassessment of how we move freight as well as passengers. The use of an all-island rail passenger/freight network would reduce road traffic congestion and protect the environment by reducing toxic emissions.

We should be planning to connect the southern system up with the lines in the north to establish a proper All-Ireland network. The economic benefits of regenerating an all-Ireland rail network should not be underestimated. It would address the infrastructural deficiencies that are often cited as the main factors for failure to attract sustainable investment to regions outside the Dublin/Belfast axis.

‘Strategic transport planning’ is one of the areas listed for co-operation and implementation under the All-Ireland Ministerial Council’s remit. The AIMC should lead the way in developing and implementing such a visionary transportation plan.

A lack of imaginative thinking is apparent on many fronts attached to transport policy such as the lack of train connections to airports at City of Derry and Belfast International despite the rail lines passing within a mile from the terminals.

The Ministerial Council has the potential to effect fundamental and positive change for the benefit of all the people on this island. The re-establishment of the rail link from Derry joining with the Belfast to Dublin line at Newry, the reinstatement of the Derry link to Letterkenny/Sligo and beyond and the associated new investment would not only transform the economic fortunes of the North West of Ireland but would help strengthen the economic fabric of the island as a whole. It would create tens of thousands of jobs and inject much needed finance into the neglected towns and villages it would reconnect.

Sinn Féin is under no illusion about the massive financial investment a regeneration programme of this nature would involve. However, Belfast and Dublin must realise that the solution to problems such as under-development, devastating damage to the environment, vandalism of our cultural heritage etc. lies in the development and implementation of long-term transportation strategies.

The Centre for Cross Border Studies should be tasked to produce a cost analysis of such a project. Some ‘visionaries’ recently unveiled proposals for a bridge connection to Scotland at a projected cost of £15billion. Great idea, but wouldn’t such a budget go a long way towards establishing a modern all-Ireland rail network?

We must think imaginatively. The linking of ports, airports and railways should be an essential element of a future transport network.

The re-establishment of an all-island rail network would surely attract support from the EU. Belfast and Dublin should develop a joint proposal for the deployment of European Structural Funds for such an ecologically protective and economically productive venture.

I believe that such a project would meet with great support in the EU with the already strong support for projects that address the disastrous consequences of climate change.

The reinstatement of a proper all-Ireland rail network should form the preferred option for freight and passenger traffic in the future.