Hamill’s Beat - Trains used to come and go largely unnoticed

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The Peace Bridge gives us a bird’s eye view of work on the railway line. It’s interesting. If it had happened before the bridge was built we would have seen little or nothing of it. The railway used to be well hidden.

There’s something romantic about our railway. Trains used to sneak up on us by slipping along the river amongst the trees and bushes. (Well, they did until the engineering work began and will do so again when the line re-opens.) Unless we happened to glance across the Foyle just as a train was passing, they used to come and go largely unnoticed. They were certainly under-appreciated. Virtually nothing was spent on promoting the line. Perhaps that was ok when the track was in a shocking state but it needs to change when the improved line re-opens.

At least until the old station closed in 1980 passengers would arrive and depart from an impressive terminus.

Then the grand old station was replaced by our embarrassing little halt. It belongs to the up-turned egg box school of architecture. There must be cities with more impressive public conveniences.

For instance, the station bar and refreshment room in the old building were replaced by a vending machine in the cramped little halt.

The replacement station, one of the meanest in the North, told us all we needed to know about how much the transport company valued Derry’s only railway.

How were we careless enough to allow the line, which provides one of the great railway journeys of the world, to get into such a state?

I can’t give enough credit to the visionary members of Into the West for their efforts. They saved the line.

They galvanised public opinion and put pressure on politicians. The resulting groundswell of popular sentiment made the closure of the North’s so-called “non-core lines north of Ballymena” unacceptable.

There isn’t any doubt that, given continued investment, the railway can be a fantastic success. Just consider the packed buses to Belfast.

They often have to face severe road congestion. The option of a fast and frequent train service would massively enhance the appeal of public transport.

More and faster trains would grow the market.

There was even a surge in passenger numbers on the line before its temporary closure.

Into the West has been taking a close interest in the work. In addition to the lobby group’s members, many other users of the Peace Bridge will have watched with interest. The rails were laid and temporarily joined. Then the joints were welded, the track adjusted and the rails fixed to all the new sleepers.

The last stage was for “ballast” (stones) to be dropped to keep the sleepers in place. Last week you may have seen this ballasting taking place using an engine with six hopper wagons. They had been brought to Derry by road.

Into the West understands the work here at the Derry end and at the Coleraine end is progressing well. Ballasting operations on the middle section between Eglinton and Castlerock finished some time ago.

Several other improvements are being carried out and bridges are being repaired.

Aren’t Northern Ireland Railways missing a public relations trick by not issuing their own progress reports?

It’ll be a red-letter day when the line re-opens. In the longer term we’d love to see our fine old station re-connected to the track and living again as a railway terminus.