Ben Lowry: We have some good public transport in NI, but need new motorways too

The stretch of railway west of Castlerock, en route to Londonderry, which has entranced international rail travellers including Michael Palin and Michael Portillo. Photo: Paul Faith/PA Wire

The stretch of railway west of Castlerock, en route to Londonderry, which has entranced international rail travellers including Michael Palin and Michael Portillo. Photo: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Ten days ago I got a reminder of how good our public transport can be.

I was travelling up to the funeral of Martin McGuinness and got the first train from Belfast to Londonderry.

The Moneynick Road, a single carriageway section of the A6 between Belfast and Londonderry that is due to be upgraded to dual carriageway

The Moneynick Road, a single carriageway section of the A6 between Belfast and Londonderry that is due to be upgraded to dual carriageway

The 6.08am service pulled into Belfast City Hospital station at 6.07:37 (I know that because the digital station clock is so precise) ready to leave bang on time.

The trains now accept credit cards for payment, which eases things for the passenger (but slows them down for the conductor).

The journey up was smooth and punctual and quiet and I spent it working my way through a large bundle of different newspapers from that and previous days, catching up on how other titles had been reporting events, including the death of Mr McGuinness. It had been so busy at work that I had fallen behind with such reading.

At that magnificent stretch of line west of Castlerock, as the train emerges from the Downhill tunnel, I looked out to a blustery scene at Benone beach and the bay beyond, a view that has entranced international rail buffs such as Michael Palin and Michael Portillo.

The train got in at 8.25am and I walked across the Peace bridge to the City Hotel for breakfast and later went to the funeral.

On the 5.35pm train back to Belfast, which was also on time, I spent the journey working on my reports from the funeral, using my work laptop and the train wifi. At points the wifi signal cut out but generally it held out.

The train pulled into Belfast Central on schedule at 7.39pm and I walked outside to the bus stop to get an Ulsterbus which passes at around 7.45pm to Comber (I have no car at the moment).

From the square in the heart of the Co Down town, I walked to the football ground for a talk by an old history teacher of mine about Edmund de Wind, who was killed 99 years ago in March 1918 in the Great War, and awarded a Victoria Cross.

There is a bid to raise money for a memorial in Comber, the town in which de Wind was born. We will be writing about that campaign in the months to come.

Mike Nesbitt, who I had talked to earlier in the day at the McGuinness funeral, 90 miles away, was also at the Comber event, looking tired. “Being leader is 24/7,” he said.

I didn’t ask him if he had travelled to the two locations by public transport because I knew it was unlikely he had done, and as he left I saw that he was holding car keys.

But it is easily possible, with fortuitously timed complementary services (I had even planned to get the last bus back from Comber at 10.05pm but someone gave me a lift).

In fact public transport is easier for big journeys. If I had driven I would not have been able to catch up on reading and work.

I had also been offered a lift back to Belfast from Londonderry that day by a couple of attendees that I talked to after the funeral but I turned it down because I would have been unable to work in their car.

A well-run first world society will have good public transport and good roads.

France shows that you can have excellent trains and motorways, the former funded by a highly taxed society, the latter by expensive tolls.

Twenty years ago, when it seemed that almost no progress was being made in upgrading the roads between Belfast and Londonderry and Dublin, I advocated tolls on those two specific routes.

The success of the later tolling point at Drogheda, on the southern M1, which brings in a large amount of annual revenue and so helped fund that stretch of the motorway, shows that a lot of cash can be made from tolls. Motorists will pay if the road is good enough.

I think Northern Ireland could only sustain two toll points, but it is too late for such an arrangement now. We opted instead for gradual stretches of dual carriageway on those two routes instead of a pricey motorway. It is taking for ever to complete.

If Northern Ireland had as much motorway per square mile as France does, it would have about 170 miles of motorway, which is about 100 miles more than it has.

But there is not enough demand for high speed rail link to the Northwest. The population is too small, and even France would not have one on such a route.

Nor is there a compelling case for a fast rail link to Belfast International Airport. As a society we opted for three airports, and that means that Aldergrove lacks the critical mass it might have had.

There are four feasible key road schemes in Northern Ireland, one of which is an expressway between the M1 and M2 past Aldergrove.

Another is a completion of the A6, all the way to the A2 near the Foyle Bridge.

The third is the A5.

The last obvious project is Belfast’s York Street interchange.

After that there are many other bypasses and public transport projects, perhaps less urgent, but that deserve support.

As I have written in many columns, the money is there, if we are prepared to trim other populist public spends.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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