After decades of neglect, Derry’s rail infrastructure is finally receiving some welcome investment.
An hourly service to Belfast began this summer and work will soon commence on a replacement train station. It is essential that these changes are not ‘the end of the line’ for rail improvements locally. Yet last week a new council Growth Strategy was announced for Derry - demanding major road investment, but ignoring rail entirely. With congestion slowly strangling Derry and more than one in three households without access to a car here, we will fail our city if its transport future is focused entirely on roads.
So here are seven suggestions for further improvements to Derry’s rail service. From minor timetable tweaks to major line extensions, together they would help create a new golden age for rail across the north-west.
1. Simpler Timetable.
Trains from Belfast are currently timetabled to start at 10 mins. past every hour, whilst the service in the opposite direction leaves Derry at 38 mins. past the hour. If the trains from Belfast were instead scheduled to leave on the hour, and the service from Derry on the half hour, this minor tweak would remove the need for anyone to check timetables when travelling between NI’s two biggest cities and it would also make the service easier for Translink to communicate.
2. A ‘Rail-Air’ link to
The only way to get from Derry to N. Ireland’s largest airport currently is by car or by Airporter bus (expensive at £20 single and soon to stop concessionary ‘Smartpass’ travel). With a timetable change from Translink, a new third rail-based option could also be introduced. A train line runs close to Belfast International and there is talk of it re-opening at some future point. In the meantime, Antrim Train Station sits just five miles from Aldergrove and the rail fare from there to Derry is £12 (1 hr. 35 mins. journey). Yet there is only one Ulsterbus service scheduled every hour between the airport and Antrim station.
Translink should, therefore, create a new ‘Rail-Air Link’ service. It would only require one additional bus between Antrim and Aldergrove each hour, timed to connect with trains travelling in each direction from the station. Special through-tickets should be made available - covering passengers from rail stations across N. Ireland through to Belfast International. This would improve access to our biggest airport from throughout NI, hand-deliver new passengers to the rail network and create genuinely integrated transport – all whilst reducing road traffic. And it would enable demand for any future rail service direct to the airport to be tested.
3. Express to Belfast
The 70 miles train journey between Derry and Belfast currently take 2 hrs. 12 mins, at less than 32 mph. Of the 12 stations between Derry and Belfast’s Great Victoria Street, four stops cater for the vast majority of passengers (Coleraine, Ballymena, Antrim and Botanic). If every train stop on the line adds approx. four minutes to a journey, the other eight stations are, therefore, contributing few passengers whilst adding over half an hour to the schedule. A fast service between Derry and Belfast (stopping only at Coleraine, Ballymena, Antrim, and potentially Botanic for Queen’s University), would reduce total journey time to approx. 90 mins. and make rail much more competitive. Limiting stops would upset passengers currently using the other stations on the line, however. So before introducing a fast service, my next proposed improvement would also need to happen.
4. Trains Every Half Hour
Now that we finally have trains to Belfast every hour, the end goal should be a half-hourly frequency. That would require further track changes, plus more trains and staff. Half-hourly trains would enable a game changer for rail. Firstly, it has the potential to significantly increase passenger numbers, taking Translink a step closer to not needing public subsidy. Secondly, by alternating trains every half hour between an express and a regular service, it would enable fast trains to be introduced without deserting users of the less busy stations.
And the third benefit would be . . . . . .
5. Direct to Dublin.
Trains from Derry to Belfast terminate at Great Victoria Street, whilst the service from Belfast to Dublin leaves from Belfast Central. £160 m is being spent redeveloping Great Victoria Street Station, after which the Dublin service will depart from there. At that point a direct train service could be introduced from Derry all the way through to Dublin and by only including key stops along the route, a journey time of just over 3 hrs. 30 mins. should be possible.
6. A ‘Foyle Parkway
Derry has NI’s most isolated train station. It takes 21 miles and 23 minutes to reach our next-nearest station at Bellarena (population 332) - a little-used halt only eight minutes from Castlerock Station. Bellarena should, therefore, be replaced with a new Foyle Parkway Station at City of Derry Airport (CoDA), serving three distinct purposes. Firstly, by being the only airport in Ireland connected by rail, it would increase CoDA’s catchment area and viability. Secondly, the station could also function as a ‘Park & Rail’ facility for Derry city centre (particularly during major events) and thirdly, the station should also be designed to serve fast-growing Eglinton (population 3,800). In this way the new station would have substantially more passengers than Bellarena and enable true integration between road, rail and air transport. The main challenge to this proposal is the fact the rail line runs along Lough Foyle, separated from the airport terminal by its runway. This not only prevents future expansion of CoDA’s runway, but also inhibits nearby Foyle Port’s access to the river. A sensible solution would, therefore, be to divert the line to instead run along the A2 road between CoDA and Strathfoyle. This would cost significantly less per-mile than the road schemes planned for Derry and would remove a barrier to the future expansion of our air and sea ports. This would provide a perfect location for the new Foyle Parkway Station and as an added bonus, the discarded section of railway line would make a fantastic new Greenway.
7. Extensions - Strabane and Letterkenny
In 2014 Stormont adopted a 20 years rail strategy for N.I. - ignoring the north-west. It instead proposed new lines around Belfast and between Dungannon and Portadown (17 miles, combined population 36,000). A line extension from Derry to Strabane (14 miles, combined population 120,000) would cost less and serve more people in an area with significantly lower car ownership. And it would be the first step towards plugging the huge gap in Ireland’s rail network between Derry and Sligo. in addition, a third road bridge is planned between Newbuildings and the Letterkenny Road. By also incorporating a rail line within that structure, a new EU-funded rail route to Letterkenny could also be enabled via a spur from the Derry-Strabane line. That would not only signal the return of rail to Donegal, but potentially also Derry’s cityside via a new station on the Letterkenny Road – stimulating house building and employment growth to the south of the city centre.
Steve Bradley is a commentator and regeneration consultant from Derry. He can be followed on Twitter at @bradley_steve