Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

…it’s only just begun

Posted in Customer service, Infrastructure, Ireland, Politics by Chairman Pip on 17 January 2013

The publication of the outline work plan for Control Period 5 by Network Rail seems to have led to others jumping on the “what can we/are we going to do?” express. Actually, that’s unlikely, as undertaking planning work for the publication of a major policy document does take a while. Nevertheless, we not only have the CP5 plan for Great Britain, but now we also have the start of a public consultation by the Department for Regional Development over the future direction of the railway network in Northern Ireland. In announcing this, Danny Kennedy, the Minister in charge, said that while there was a need to carry on maintaining the network as it was, a strategic outlook was necessary to build on what has already been done:

‘Looking forward over the next 20 years, there has to be a strategic direction to determine the priority in which we should tackle new railway projects.

To do this, the DRD has set out in its consultation a range of options for the public to discuss, from vanilla (maintaining as is), through the neopolitan option of electrification, and onto the triple chocolate idea of expanding the network. Of course, the DRD has also set out with these options its cost estimates, which naturally are pretty big – it estimates that the vanilla option would cost somewhere in the region of £620m over the twenty year period from 2015-2035. That being said though, some of the improvement options, while still expensive, would likely turn into fairly cost-effective solutions in the long term. For example, the DRD estimates that electrifying the entire existing network, which is a little over 200 miles in length, would be in the region of £350m. But, we all know that electric trains cost less, both to procure and operate, are faster, have better acceleration, and require less maintenance than equivilent diesel units. Why do you think the British government has sanctioned the upcoming electrification projects? Doing this could well then encourage the Irish government to do the same, at least with certain parts of its network (perhaps most importantly the main lines to Belfast and Cork).

In 2008, Brian Guckian, a transport consultant from Dublin, laid out a proposal for a major expansion of the Northern Ireland network, which involved the restoration of the line from Derry to Portadown, with branches to Armagh and Enniskillen, plus a new cross-border line from Derry to Donegal, and reopening the extant but unused line between Lisburn and Antrim to serve Belfast International Airport. The DRD looks at some of these ideas as well – there is a proposal for the line from Portadown to Omagh and Enniskillen, and another for a line from Derry to Letterkenny and Sligo. Both of these are seen as phenomenally expensive, as they would essentially be the construction of brand new main lines. There may potentially be justification for a new southern route that runs to the major towns in the west of Northern Ireland to be built in stages, depending that is on the public will. A cross-border line would need the cooperation of the Irish government (which essentially means Iarnród Éireann), and, given expanding the rail network to the north-west ‘has not (been) identified as an investment priority’, seems unlikely. However, the DRD consultation also includes the proposal to restore service along the Antrim line to serve the airport. This has been budgeted around the £50m mark, which covers restoring the existing line, creating an airport spur and procuring additional trains. The comment from the DRD on this proposal is that “‘it is highly unlikely’ that a rail link would be ‘more regular or cost-effective’ than buses”, which to me sounds as if they’ve already made up their mind. This is in spite of the fact that airports in Great Britain that look to expand and improve state that a dedicated rail connection in some form or another is a must. We’ve had the addition of Southend Airport station, while Glasgow Airport and numerous major businesses remain committed to getting the GARL back on the agenda. Surely the best way of finding out the “cost-effectiveness” of serving Belfast Airport by train, which would also bring numerous communities on that side of Belfast itself back onto the railway, removing cars from the roads, would be to study airports of similar size and passenger number, including those with and without rail links, to see just how popular/useful/used they actually are.

Future Railway Investment: a Consultation Paper
“Looking into the future of Northern Ireland Railways”

 

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