Eamonn McCann - Fast-track to closure

This column has been arguing for years that pledges from Ministers at the Department of Regional Development to upgrade the Derry-Coleraine rail line should be treated with a high degree of scepticism. The warning is borne out in a letter which has just come to hand from Minister Danny Kennedy to Gregory Campbell. In the letter, dated July 28th, Kennedy admits that the promise of previous Minister Conor Murphy that an upgrade would be completed by 2013 had been “deferred” in last January’s budget. Work wouldn’t now begin - begin, not be completed - until 2014. “Funding of £20 million has...been allocated to the 2014/15 year to allow the project to start at that time.”

Until the work is completed, “the present frequency of rail services operating on this section of the track cannot be sustained.”

The number of trains per day will be reduced from nine to four or five. Meantime, an hourly service between Coleraine and Belfast will be introduced.

Confusingly (for a split second), Mr. Kennedy adds that “service provision between Coleraine and Londonderry will be increased from nine services daily to up to 15 services daily”. What he means is that the four/five trains will be augmented by buses travelling from Coleraine to Derry via Limavady.

The letter concludes: “As I mentioned earlier, £20m has been allocated to the 2014/15 financial year in order to start the full upgrade of the line. As you will understand, I cannot predict the outcome of the next Comprehensive Spending Review”.

The idea is, then, that preparation work for the project will begin in 2014/15 - but if, at that stage, money for the project as a whole hasn’t been allocated for the following spending round - and Mr. Kennedy admits he can guarantee no such thing – then the preparatory work won’t go ahead.

The blunt truth is that despite all the wind and blether from Conor Murphy and now from Danny Kennedy, there is no guarantee that the long-heralded modernisation of the line will ever happen or that there will ever be more than four/five trains a day arriving and leaving from the Waterside Station. Which common sense tells us wouldn’t be viable.

Far from swift, comfortable modern trains carrying travellers to and from Derry through some of the most beautiful countryside in Europe in time for the City of Culture in 2013, the line may by then be on a fast track to closure. Derry rail workers’ jobs will be destroyed in the process.

But fear not. Take a bus to Coleraine via Limavady and you’ll find a brilliant regular service onwards to Belfast.

Read more form Eamonn McCann in the Journal on Tuesday