Closing the Gap in NI’s Rail Network – Seven Demands for the West… – Slugger O’Toole
When Northern Ireland was founded a century ago, an intricate network of railway lines connected every town and city in the jurisdiction. It was an important economic and social legacy from the Victorian era, when all transport was ‘public transport’.
In less than 50 years, however, all that had changed. In 1949 the multitude of private companies which operated individual railway lines across NI were nationalized under the control of Stormont ‘Ulster Transport Authority’ (UTA). The UTA was notoriously anti-rail and immediately began eliminating sections of the network across Northern Ireland. Its first victim was the Belfast and County Down Railway, which linked NI’s largest city to every corner of its second most populous county. Almost all of this line was closed between 1950 and 1955, with only the Belfast-Bangor section surviving.
While UTA’s anti-rail attitude seems myopic to many today, their attitude was not out of step with the mood of the time. The post-World War II era saw a series of social and political changes that began to erode the status and viability of rail transport – particularly the rise of motorized vehicles for individuals, passengers and freight. As the 1950s and 1960s progressed, road transport looked like the future – with major motorways planned and pushed into the center of cities like Belfast. The view at the time was that roads and cars were a liberating force for good – with their negative impacts on pollution, congestion, obesity and the fragmentation of urban areas yet to be understood. However – Northern Ireland being Northern Ireland, suspicions also arose that partisan politics played no small part in decisions about which lines to close at this time. Given that the former one-party regime in Stormont did not treat all of its citizens equally or fairly on such broad issues as housing, voting, education and economic development, it would be naive to think that the only policy area in which they somehow managed to ‘play fair’ was infrastructure. Especially given the power of infrastructure to influence the distribution of people and jobs, against the backdrop of the former Stormont regime’s obsession with religious demographics.
It is therefore not surprising to many that the railroad network west of NI faced the most significant cuts in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1965, all but one railroad in western NI Ulster had been wiped from the map. This removed rail from key towns like Omagh, Enniskillen, Dungannon, Strabane, Cookstown, Limavady and Letterkenny. The only line in the west that survived was the Derry-Belfast route, while the only cross-border service that remained open was Belfast-Dublin in the east. Rail has been phased out entirely from counties Tyrone and Fermanagh in the NI, and from Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan in the south (partly because the closure of lines in the NI made it untenable to maintain their ROI sections). While Derry once sat at the convergence of a complex network of four different rail routes and four stations across the city, by 1965 it had been reduced to a single line – to Belfast – terminating in part predominantly unionist of a majority. -nationalist city. The decimation of Derry’s rail network proved to be one of many catalysts for the growth of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in the city – whose marches tended to start from the railway station remainder of the city at Duke Street. In this way, the rail closure in the west was one of many political and social threads in the late 1960s that were independently woven together in the fuse that finally blew in 30 years of The Troubles. Since then, the disappearance of infrastructure in West Ulster has been inextricably linked to the region’s economic underperformance.
Not content with its predecessor’s rail closures, in 2004 the post-Good Friday Stormont Assembly decided to clear the last section of rail from the western counties of Ulster. With the railway between Derry and Belfast nearing the end of its lifespan and passenger numbers a fraction of what it is today, Stormont has decided, in his wisdom, that the line was to close north and west of Ballymena. This would have removed rail from key towns like Derry City, Coleraine, Ballymoney and Portrush – while making the likelihood of a future return to Tyrone, Fermanagh or Donegal even less likely. Veteran civil rights activist Eamon McCann helped set up a group called ‘Into The West’ in Derry which successfully campaigned for the ruling to be overturned. Although it should be noted that – 18 years later – the promised STILL track upgrade has not happened, is currently unfunded and has been pushed back to 2027 at the earliest. It appears that rail myopia in the west is a long-standing and endemic affliction among many in Stormont and the NI public service.
The good news is that an opportunity has now arisen to right some of those past mistakes. Rail is experiencing a major renaissance across Europe, and the EU has even declared 2021 its “Year of Rail”. Within the island of Ireland – a place with one of the highest car dependency rates in Europe – rail is no longer seen as an outdated relic. On the contrary, it is increasingly seen as a key part of this island’s transport future – with a vital contribution to make in the fight against climate change, traffic congestion and the rebalancing of population and life. economic activity away from Belfast and Dublin. The Republic in particular has reflected this change in attitude in its new national development plan “Project Ireland 2040”, which makes sustainable mobility a key national objective. While Northern Ireland is often slow to react to the winds of change, even here there has been a palpable shift in attitudes. And now the first-ever all-island rail strategy is being developed to set out a new role and future for rail across Ireland.
The rail review strategy for the entire island was jointly announced last year by NI Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon and her southern counterpart Eamon Ryan. The strategy will look at ways to improve the rail network across Ireland as a whole with a particular focus on “better connections to the north-west” of the island, which history has left almost entirely devoid of rail . The review is due to be completed and published by summer 2022 – and as part of this process, a consultation has begun to seek public input.
‘Into The West’ is the campaign group for rail in counties Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal. As previously stated, it was set up in 2004 to successfully oppose Stormont’s plan to scrap the Derry-Belfast rail line beyond Ballymena. Into The West won this crucial battle and continued it by also successfully campaigning for the creation of a new railway station in Derry. In recent years, the organization has campaigned for seven major improvements that would revolutionize transport in the North West of the Island – to transport ministers and officials, MPs, MPs, councils, TDs, chambers of commerce and ordinary members of the public. And he has witnessed a fundamental shift in public opinion on this subject over these years. Where once the idea of bringing rail back to places like Omagh, Armagh or Enniskillen was dismissed as a fantasy, it is now seen as essential by many across NI. The lack of even basic infrastructure in counties like Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal is no longer tolerated, and people are increasingly demanding change. The West is awake!
If you want to see rail come back and improve in West Ulster, the All-Island Rail Review is the perfect opportunity to make your voice heard. It is essential that as many people as possible in Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal use it to demand the expansion and improvement of rail across the West. There will be many contributing voices from across the island demanding that rail be restored or improved in their area as well. So, if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity, there is a danger that the places that scream the loudest will become the main focus of this new strategy. Rail will only expand in the West if people believe it is possible and demand that it happen. We must therefore ensure that the people of Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal speak with a clear and united voice on this key issue for the future of our region.
The seven key improvements that Into The West encourages people to ask for when responding to the Rail Review consultation are:
SEVEN RAILWAY REQUESTS FOR THE WEST
1) Reopen the Derry-Portadown rail line.
(via Strabane/Lifford, Omagh and Dungannon, will create a direct rail route to Dublin from Tyrone, North West and East Donegal).
2) Reconnect Enniskillen to the rail network.
(From Omagh to Enniskillen, and south to Sligo)
3) Faster and more frequent trains between Derry, Coleraine and Belfast
(Including departures every half hour, and fast express service).
4) Connect the 3 NI airports to the rail network.
5) Reopen the Derry-Letterkenny railway line.
(Offering direct trains from Letterkenny to Dublin, via Derry & Tyrone)
6) Connecting Limavady, Ballykelly & Strathfoyle to the rail network.
(Creation of a north-west suburban rail network between Derry and Coleraine).
7) Complete the “Western Rail Corridor” from Limerick to Sligo
(And continue north through Donegal to Derry)
the deadline for submissions to the consultation on the rail review strategy for the whole island is 5 p.m. THIS FRIDAY – 9 p.m.st January 2022.
If you want to see rail return and improve in counties Tyrone, Fermanagh, Derry and Donegal after 60 years of transport isolation, be sure to submit a submission to say so today. And please also ask for the seven “Questions for the West” listed above.
The consultation page is: www.StrategicRailReview.com/Feedback . You can also submit your comments by email to: [email protected]
Steve Bradley is Chairman of ‘Into The West’ – The Rail Campaign for Counties Derry, Tyrone Fermanagh and Donegal.
PS It should be added that Into The West supports and works with other groups campaigning for rail to be restored and improved elsewhere within NI (eg Portadown-Armagh Rail Society). Railworks as a network – so that improvements or expansion in a particular area also benefit the rest of the network. We support all improvements to rail, whether in our geographic area or beyond.