A rail link for Northern Ireland’s main airport – Belfast International at Aldergrove – could finally be realised following a fresh assessment of local railway provision.
Published today, the Department for Regional Development study proposes the first major extension of the network since the closure of several lines in 1963.
The three main priorities – for implementation between now and 2035 – are an improvement in the current network to increase passenger capacity and improve train quality, eliminating bottlenecks to improve journey times and an extension of the network “where there are the most favourable opportunities for passenger growth”.
Feasibility studies will also be carried out into potential new rail links between Antrim and Castledawson, and between both Armagh city and Dungannon with Portadown.
Despite being listed as “priority 3,” DRD points out that it is progressing the case for feasibility studies into the new rail links due to public demand for improved services.
Other proposals include the refurbishment of rail halts at Adelaide, Ballymena, Londonderry and Lurgan, and the provision of several new park and ride facilities across the network.
Last year NI Railways carried a record 13.2 million passengers – almost double the number that used the service in 2002.
Launching the Railway Investment Prioritisation Strategy 2014, Transport Minister Danny Kennedy described it as an “ambitious” plan he was committed to financing where possible.
“I am particularly keen to extend the option of rail travel to commuters from mid-Ulster and to the populations in the south and west within the catchments of Armagh and Dungannon,” he said.
“Although the speed of progress will depend on the amount of funding that can be made available from the Executive’s budget and, where possible, from the European programmes, I am committed to exploring all funding opportunities and making this happen,” Mr Kennedy added.
New railway halts under consideration by the minister Danny Kennedy (pictured) include Ballymartin, Lisburn West, Belfast Donegall Quay, Craigavon and Eglinton/Ballykelly.
According to the new report, the list may be added to where further passenger demand emerges during the strategy period.
It says: “Developing new halts where a viable passenger demand can be identified, particularly where associated with park and ride facilities, can help stimulate more rail usage.”
Plans to introduce new or additional park and ride spaces are already under consideration for:
Track relays listed as ‘Priority One’ items
Completion of the Coleraine to Londonderry track relay is listed as one of the ‘Priority One’ issues to be addressed under the new proposals.
Others in the same category include:
l Track relays between Coleraine and Antrim, and at Lurgan station
l Refurbishment of the Enterprise rolling stock
l Refurbishment of the Class 3000 and 4000 trains
l Upgrades to station halts including Adelaide, Ballymena, Londonderry and Lurgan
l The purchase of up to 60 extra carriages
l A new programme of park and ride facilities
l The development of new halts, particularly where linked to park and ride facilities
l Improvements to passenger information and ticketing projects
l A rolling programme of track rehabilitation and signalling upgrades.
Among the ‘Priority Two’ issues are a third track from Adelaide to Great Victoria Street to serve the new transport hub, and a third line from Lagan Junction to Central Station.
Aldergrove ‘masterplan’ looks for improved access
Although there are no firm details of how any airport rail link would operate, the improved service also features as part of Belfast International Airport’s current ‘masterplan’.
According to the masterplan’s suggested infrastructure improvements, “various options associated with the reopening and use of the Knockmore line in order to facilitate passenger traffic to the airport” will be explored.
It goes on to say: “It would be our aspiration to adopt one of these options to enhance access to the airport in the long term. Shorter term possibilities may include the re-establishment of a halt on the line, to be connected to the airport passenger terminal by shuttle bus, should the line be brought back into use.”
Commenting on the possible network extensions, minister Danny Kennedy said: “Projects that will be considered include the enhancement of the Northern Line between Bleach Green and Antrim.
“Other feasibility studies into longer term will propose extensions along the A6 corridor between Antrim and Castledawson; along the M1/A4 and the A3/A29 corridors towards Dungannon/Armagh; and a route to serve Belfast International Airport.”
Despite the ambitious long-term plans, such improvements would require substantial investment above the current railways capital grant of £44m per annum.
The department also points out that any project undertaken would be subject to an economic appraisal of the business case.