If unionism wants a bridge to Scotland it must support investment in railways

A few years ago an architect ‘floated’ the idea of building a bridge to Scotland from Northern Ireland as a feat of engineering which would surpass even the massive bridge between Hong Kong and Macau in China.

Wednesday, 5th August 2020, 6:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 5th August 2020, 9:06 pm
The success of the Londonderry railway line is proof that when elected officials challenge the inner workings of Stormont departments and choose to invest in something it can pay off

The floating platforms of the Hong Kong bridge provide a precedent which we could follow if building a bridge between the two islands of Britain and Ireland were ever to be attempted.

The project would be enormous and as this paper has been reporting frequently it would capture the imagination of people much more than the physical impact on the landscape ever could.

Sadly as is the usual fashion in Northern Ireland politics, the discussion over the bridge fell into a unionist/nationalist split.

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Construction work on the passing place at Bellarena next to the railway station in 2015. This made an hourly service possible on the Londonderry line. But why has phase 3 of the upgrade of the track been cancelled?

Nationalists largely have derided the project as an ‘umbilical cord’ for a demoralised unionism seeking any kind of physical link with the mother country.

However as Robert Park (July 30) and others have pointed out this idea doesn’t have to become another game of zero sum between the two communities. Unionists such as the DUP parliamentary team would have more emotional buy-in from this project if they were prepared to show the same generosity for internal NI infrastructure projects.

For example, in 2001 the department then responsible for railways here attempted to close a large stretch of the Londonderry railway line west of Coleraine town. Not only was the service slow but it had suffered a decline in passenger numbers and the Stormont officials thought it prudent to just scrap it and cut the only non-road link between our two largest cities.

Thankfully campaigners successfully lobbied to have it kept open, it now has passenger growth rates which exceeded all expectations.

Jay Michael Burbank is a Belfast based lawyer and freelance writer

Stormont have subsequently invested in the line, including building passing loops outside Londonderry city (at Bellerena) so that an hourly service is available between the cities. Today this line is the busiest in NI by passenger numbers and it is the busiest single track line in the entire United Kingdom.

The question remains, when a minister wasn’t in place during the recent Sinn Fein inspired hiatus, why did the department officials cancel phase 3 of upgrading the track?

Translink have been happy to work with the department but whenever quizzed about capital investment in railway the company brings up the demand for a new line to Armagh city rather than the phase 3 upgrade on the already existing and popular Londonderry line.

The Londonderry line is proof that when elected officials challenge the inner workings of Stormont departments and choose to invest in something it can pay off hugely.

If political unionism wants the bridge to Scotland to be taken seriously then it must make serious strides into supporting investment in our railways.

What is the use of a possible road and rail bridge to Scotland if there are slow and unreliable tracks on this side of the sea for our Scottish cousins to disembark from?

The HS2 high speed rail project in England has been used as a tool to massively regenerate Birmingham city centre, which includes a huge new railway terminus.

Isn’t it time we thought of the bridge in the same way and used it as an impetus to upgrade the Londonderry line with dualled tracks and more passing loops?

• Jay Michael Burbank is a Belfast based lawyer and writer

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