Steve Bradley from Into the West lobby group made a presentation to Members about the campaign to improve local rail services including the return of rail connectivity to Tyrone, Donegal and Fermanagh.
Mr Bradley presented the committee with some facts about the rail connection in the north west, describing Derry as being ‘ the second class citizen in terms of rail provision’.
He said: “In Northern Ireland there are 54 railway stations, 51 are in the east of the Province with just three west of the River Bann.
“Northern Ireland’s second biggest city only has one train that would get you into Belfast before 9am in the morning so whether people are studying or working there is only one train at 12 minutes past 6 that gets you in on time.
“Coleraine has four such trains and Portrush, which is a seaside village to be honest, has four options.”
Members were also told that the number of peak time (4-6pm) weekday trains from Belfast to Coleraine is four with just two to Derry.
The last train on a Saturday from Belfast to Derry is 21.10 whilst the last train to Coleraine is 22.40.
The number of trains to Belfast on a Sunday from Coleraine is 13 (one every hour) with only six from Derry (one every two hours).
Mr Bradley explained the reason Into the West had approached the council to make the deputation came about following the decision made by the Planning Department to grant Clanmil Housing Association permission on appeal to build riverside apartments on top of the former track bed at Victoria Road.
He said: “That was the catalyst for us to acknowledge a broader issue. In positive news, the council has two policies with regards rail expansion within the district and we know it is keen to see that happen but at the same time there’s a number of small independent isolated decisions being made within and by council which aren’t necessarily anything to do with rail but which when they advocate up nonetheless have the potential to impact the future rail expansion in our area.”
SDLP Councillor Sean Mooney asked if the possible Clanmil Victoria Road development could prevent any further progress on this matter, saying: “If that goes up is that game over for any future prospects for rail review leaving Derry City?”
Mr Bradley responded: “Personally speaking I suspect that it will on the basis that if you start with the principle of a single central station for the city which realistically will be the Waterside, and if you accept that you can’t cross the river north of the Craigavon Bridge because the space and angles aren’t there, then the only way you are going o get rail south to Tyrone and and then west to Donegal is to pass through the Clanmil site.
“The other options include putting platforms over the Foyle and bear in mind rail is heavy, so if you are building platforms over the river you are getting into big engineering solutions which are really costly. So the economic viability of bringing rail to Letterkenny or Strabane is going to be blown out of the water and that’s why I can’t see it being viable if Clanmil builds a structure.”
Asking council to play a much more proactive role in campaigning for rail expansion, the Chair of Into the West continued: “The problem as we see it, is within council is an absence of any clear overview as to how or where the rail expansion could happen within the district and what we are going to find is lots of small independent being made which individually risk closing doors on the physical possibility of extending rail within our district.
“We suggest that council should vigorously champion the case of expanded rail in our area and lead on this issue.
“I propose that it would be helpful to establish a Rail Working Group (RWG) within the council to look at the nuts and bolts of how rail could be expanded and ensure that information is fully considered in future decision making across the council, particularly in the Planning Department.”
Following the presentation Committee Chair SDLP Councillor Martin Reilly paid tribute to the work being carried out by Into the West adding: “It is important in this council area that we are seen to be leading the way in relation to delivering real expansion, not just for our city and district but also for the wider north west of the island as a whole.”
Derg SDLP Councillor Steven Edwards called the rail divide across the North ‘shocking’ and DUP Alderman Hilary McClintock added: “It’s very clear there is a very big disparity between the east and west of the Province’.
Agreeing it was important to set up a Rail Working Group, People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin said: “Our services are a disgrace, even the basic services we have with regards to the number of trains, access at the weekends, when the trains arrive into Belfast, it’s absolutely ridiculous and I don’t understand why this isn’t being addressed in Stormont.”
Sinn Fein Councillor Conor Heaney spoke about the huge amount of work to be done.
“The gaps are stark, when you look at the maps you can’t fail to see the under-investment or lack of any investment that there’s been in this region over decades,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do and a huge amount of money to be found to deal with that.
“We still have work to do on the existing infrastructure in terms of Phase 3 of the Derry to Coleraine line which will be required if you are going to ensure that service is further upgraded to both half hourly and an express service.
“There has been a clear bias in policies towards Coleraine that has developed over many decades and you can see that in relation to the times you can get to Coleraine and not to Derry and the frequency.
“I discovered the reason you can get a later train to Coleraine and not to Derry on a Saturday is because that’s where they overnight the train and they use that first thing in the morning from Coleraine as well. Why is that the case and why could it not be overnighted in Derry?
“There’s a whole raft of things that are policy decisions taken by Translink and the Department for Infrastructure that could be addressed and refocused to try and place Derry higher up. It is the largest conurbation in that area and it should have the full suite of services.
“Why a much smaller town and a seaside village like Portrush has more services going to it than the major city is a mystery.”
Committee members agreed that council needed to have a more joined up approach to rail development when it comes to local decision making.
Local Democracy Reporter
Gillian Anderson , Local Democracy Reporting Service