The Belfast-Londonderry road will get major boost when two key upgrade sections open

Ballynafey Bridge, the first bridge to open on the A6 Randalstown to Castledawson dualling scheme, in the middle of last month, July 16. The Department of Infrastructure said good weather had facilitated good progress on the project. "In particular, commuters will have seen significant progress being made on a number of new overbridges along the new route"
Ballynafey Bridge, the first bridge to open on the A6 Randalstown to Castledawson dualling scheme, in the middle of last month, July 16. The Department of Infrastructure said good weather had facilitated good progress on the project. "In particular, commuters will have seen significant progress being made on a number of new overbridges along the new route"

This week was my second visit to Londonderry in recent weeks, the first by train, this one by car.

The train is slow but comfortable and the service is now hourly.

When a recent, more frequent timetable was launched on the route I was sceptical that passenger levels were high enough to justify so many trains, but hope I am wrong about that and will read the statistics about traveller numbers with interest when they come out.

But overall the train is a pleasant way to get to Maiden City, where you can read, use wifi, or stare out the window at often fine scenery.

Driving however, which I did this week (when I was pleased to join a discussion about civil rights at the Gasyard Wall Feile), is not so nice.

It is a route that has, over the decades, become gradually more tedious to use, as traffic levels rise and also the chance of getting caught behind a tractor or lorry.

This is bad for the vibrancy and appeal of the Northwest because if a journey is optional we are less likely to make it if it is tiresome.

The Belfast-Dublin road was grim in 2002, before the last parts of it were radically upgraded to motorway (or near motorway) quality.

Travelling past Drogheda, Dundalk and around Newry was abysmal until the first of those towns was fully bypassed in 2003 and the last of them in 2010. It was dangerous and fiddly and frustrating.

Many times I found myself seething behind a tractor and thinking: this the 21st century on the main route between the two biggest cities in Ireland, yet fast-moving intercity traffic is being held up by tractors.

Part of my irritation was the political cowardice that had refused to consider tolling to fund proper roads. Had we accepted tolls we might have had a completed Belfast-Dublin motorway (and Belfast to Londonderry) in the 1990s.

When the Belfast to Dublin route was finally upgraded only the southern section was partly funded by tolls, at Drogheda, and only the southern section was built to motorway standard.

That stretch is now used by more than 25,000 vehicles a day who, on a crude calculation of around €2 per vehicle (depending on the vehicle), contribute perhaps €20 million a year to that part of the new road. This has helped fund first rate infrastructure, and is a good example of public-private partnership.

The northern part of the Belfast to Dublin route, the A1 dual carriageway, is still badly substandard between Lisburn and Loughbrickland with deadly gap junctions in which local agricultural vehicles including, yes, tractors, dart across the road in front of intercity traffic.

Ben Lowry: York St junction should be part of greater Belfast ring road

In Northern Ireland, where we are used to endless UK Treasury subsidies and are loathe to pay for anything, from water to prescription charges, there was not even a discussion about road tolling.

If there had been, our main road to the Northwest might have been a joy to use for the last two decades.

In 2004 I wrote a story about the fact that there was still no sign of progress on the Belfast to Londonderry road upgrade. I quoted Neil Greig, an AA official, who said: “In a choice between no road for 20 years or a road with tolls, the AA would always prefer to see a road with tolls.

“The overall tax that drivers pay is far too high and not enough of that is going back into roads. But if there is no alternative, then we support tolls.”

Well, heading towards 20 years later, we didn’t accept tolls and still have no proper road to the NW.

This week I timed my journey between the Belfast end of the M2, at York Street, to the traffic lights outside Altnagelvin hospital.

That stretch of road, which is mostly countryside and should be free-flowing, is 71 miles. It took me one hour, 26 minutes on the outbound, to the Northwest, in early evening (leaving in rush hour — albeit a mild summer rush hour), an average speed of 49.5 mph. The same stretch on return in late evening on mostly empty roads was one hour, 14 mins (ave 57.5 mph).

Even late at night there are slow stretches around Dungiven and Toome where your speed plunges to 40mph or less, pulling down the overall journey time.

However, work is finally under way on two key sections that will revolutionise the route: 10 miles from Randalstown to Castledawson section (that was delayed by environmental challenges) and 15 miles from Dungiven to Drumahoe (on which work is just beginning).

I reckon that at present drivers only average about 45mph on the former section during a typical non peak time of day, and 50mph on the latter (some of which, including Dungiven itself,is slower than that).

Randalstown to Castledawson will open in two phases: to Toome this time next year, and Toome-Castledawson a year or so later. Dungiven to Drumahoe is due 2022.

When all sections are open, it should be possible to average 65+ mph for those whole new 25 miles, shaving 10 minutes off the total journey. The average drive time for the entire distance between the outskirts of the two cities will fall to a little more than an hour.

The Glenshane Pass, which will be very expensive to dual, will remain single carriageway for years but average speeds are not so bad there because it is the least busy section of the route and has long uphill climbing lanes both ways.

Most importantly though for Londonderry, when the two current schemes are finished driving to and from Belfast will seem much less stressful and unpleasant.

My fear about the A6 upgrade plan is that an important final stretch will not get built — Drumahoe to Caw Roundabout, near City of Derry aiport on the road to Limavady, but also near Foyle bridge.

This bypasses the cluttered roads round Altnagelvin, and will help whisk movement between Belfast and Donegal, including rising numbers of tourists.

If that part does get scrapped, then we need to investigate a long-term plan for a dual carriageway route from Drumahoe that arcs past Londonderry to the southwest, crossing an upgraded A5, and links to a future new dual to Letterkenny.

In the meantime, completion of the two parts of the A6 that are being built will be a breakthrough for Northwest infrastructure.

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

Ben Lowry: York St junction should be part of greater Belfast ring road