Eamonn McCann - Derry-Coleraine line - the work can be done by 2013

The meeting of Derry city council called for tomorrow to consider the threat to our last remaining rail-link will prove pointless if it just turns into another orchestration of complaints about a cabal in Belfast doing Derry down.

There may be a cabal in Belfast doing us down, but that’s not the whole story. And, more important, it won’t win an argument with the Department of Regional Development. The meeting should issue a clear demand for work on re-laying the track between Derry and Coleraine to begin within the next few months and be completed in time for City of Culture in 1913. This is what was promised back in 2007 - and it can still be delivered.

One of the key documents in this saga is a paper entitled “Day One - Urgent Issues”, handed by senior officials of the DRD to new Minister Danny Kennedy on his first day in office on May 16th last. The paper outlined the state of play regarding rail and road which Mr. Kennedy was inheriting from his predecessor, Conor Murphy.

Plans were already in place, the paper warned, for cuts in bus services. Compulsory redundancies were possible. But if the outlook for public transport by road was worrying, the outlook for the Derry rail service was worse.

The Newsletter, which had obtained the paper under Freedom of Information, reported that “a key feature of the latest plan” involved “decoupling” the stretch of line from Derry to Coleraine from the rest of the network. “The move...is necessary because a delay to a £75 million upgrade of the line makes it unsafe for trains to operate at full speed on that stretch of the line. It means there will be no through trains from Londonderry.” Questions have to be asked about how this threat came to be incorporated into the DRD’s strategy. But perhaps they can wait. The immediate question is: once decoupled, would the Derry line ever be linked back into the network?

The track between Derry and Coleraine has been allowed to become so dilapidated it cannot safely accommodate the trains now coming into service. The new trains - Spanish manufactured CAF-4000s - are 80 tons heavier than the trains currently used, and run on smaller wheels. The result is significantly heavier downward pressure at every point along the line. The old jointed track between Derry and Coleraine would buckle under the weight.

Under the plan handed to Mr. Kennedy, there’ll be new trains running everywhere else on smooth rails at 90mph by next year, while older appliances trundle clackedy-clack between Derry and Coleraine at 50mhp.

The track is unsafe at any speed. Repairs are urgently needed to the bridge across the Bann on the Derry side of Coleraine, for example. Work on this and on a number of other patch-up repairs will begin within weeks. While this is under way, passengers will travel by bus and then transfer to trains. Journey times will be further lengthened and travellers discomfited and deterred.

How has this happened when the Executive’s first budget following the restoration of Stormont in May 2007 contained the go-ahead for “a proposed major track relay project between Coleraine and Londonderry” - to be in place by 2013, the then Minister assured us.

What happened, as recounted here last week, is that £20 million from the £75 million cost of the re-lay has been set aside for 2014/’15 “to allow the project to start”. The remaining £50million has been shifted forward into the next budget period, beginning in 2015/’16.

But as Minister Kennedy has conceded, “I cannot predict the outcome of the next Comprehensive Spending Review”. In other words, there is no guarantee the £50 million will ever be forthcoming, and therefore no certainty that the renewal of the line will ever become reality.

What change for the better has come about, then, as a result of the return of devolved government?

Consider this passage from the “Regional Transport Strategy Northern Ireland 2002-2010”, issued a decade ago: “Although new rolling stock and improvements to the line in the Greater Belfast Area will benefit rail users, it is believed that, because of safety concerns, lack of funding would result in the discontinuation of rail services between Antrim and Knockmore, Whitehead and Larne and Ballymena and Londonderry.”

What’s changed as far bas Derry is concerned is that “discontinuation” has been replaced with “decoupling”.

This latest let-down cannot be explained solely by reference to anti-Derry bias. The bias against rail and in favour of roads has been more important.

Argument over the funding and future of Derry’s rail connections has been raging for decades. The closure in the 1960s of the old GNR line to Dublin underlay one of the overlapping controversies which prepared the ground for the eruptions of the late 1990s. Ever since, rail workers and train users have had to keep a wary eye on developments. Every penny of investment has had to be fought for.

The contrast with the funding of roads couldn’t be more stark. There was no need for a fight for the close on one billion pounds which it will cost to dual the A5 from Derry to Aughnacloy. The money was conjured up without any fuss, as if by magic, at the St. Andrews talks in October 2006. The move was not in fulfilment of a promise or the outcome of any focused study of transport needs, but was a bartering chip in the wrangle over policing and justice - hardly a sound basis on which to commit to the most expensive infrastructural project in the history of the State.

Five percent of the cost of dualing the A5 would fully make up for the shortfall in funding for the Derry rail project in the current spending period. The money can be found within the Department’s existing budget. This should be the argument brought to the DRD by the council.

Rail workers tell me that the specialised equipment needed for the project is lying in the Irish Rail yard at Inchicore in Dublin. The work could be carried out in-house. It’s all do-able, and by 2013. What’s needed is an honest appraisal of how we came to this sorry pass, and an argument based on something more solid that the old suggestion - however well-founded - that Derry deserves better.

The arrival at the Waterside Station of the first train to glide on gleaming new track along the perfect curve of the Foyle should be one of the centrepieces of City of Culture.