Irish Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan's recommendations for development of rail network across island of Ireland
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The All-Island Rail Review, published on Tuesday, recommended reinstating the Western Rail Corridor between Claremorris and Athenry and the South Wexford Railway.
It also recommended extending the railway into Co Tyrone – running from Portadown to Dungannon, Omagh, Strabane and Derry, on to Letterkenny in Co Donegal.
Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said the analysis of the line “shows that it does stack up, it makes real sense, they’re all significant towns, they would hugely benefit by being connected by rail”.
“So I’m hopeful, subject to agreement with the Northern Ireland administration, that that line can and will be built.”
It would also seek to reinstate the Antrim to Lisburn line with a station at Belfast International Airport.
The 25-year plan examines electrification of the rail network, for faster and more frequent trains as well as new routes for passengers and freight.
If all 30 recommendations were implemented in the coming years, it would cost an estimated 36.8 billion euro (£31.5 billion), with 27.6 billion euro (£23.6 billion) to be provided by the Irish government.
The Department of Transport said this was an annual capital investment of a billion euro (£860 million) a year above existing plans, and “roughly equivalent” to peak annual investment in the motorway network in the late 2000s.
After bringing the report to Cabinet, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan told reporters: “It’s a new age of rail.
“This country, back in the 1920s, had probably the most dense rail network in the world. We’re going to add to what’s existing and bring back high-speed rail, frequent rail, rail freight, better balanced regional development.
“It’s not cheap, but at the same time, not doing it would be incredibly expensive. Our country would be gridlocked, our emissions would be rising – this gives us a better alternative, a transport system that works for everyone.”
The review also recommended developing the railway to boost connectivity in the North Midlands, from Mullingar to Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh and Portadown.
Short-term recommendations include hourly services between major cities across the island and one train every two hours between other centres.
Although upgrading railways to major cities was recommended to ensure that “train journeys are faster than the car”, the review found that benefits of a 300kph network would be “significantly outweighed” by the cost.
Two tracks or four tracks should also be implemented in some areas, and rail freight access at Dublin Port should also be developed, it said.
Mr Ryan, speaking to reporters after Cabinet approved the publication of the report, said he had a meeting on Monday with Irish Rail which is “confident” it can revive the Foynes line “the year after next”.
“A lot of what this is doing is using the existing assets that are not being used.
“That section for Wexford to Watford, we’ve maintained that line for the last 10 years when it wasn’t being used, and the line from Watford to Limerick Junction, it’s there in name, but not really in reality.
“Well, let’s use that service, let’s use that line. By reintroducing that we connect to the port, we go to every single business along that line and say, ‘Do you want your goods transported out of the country in a low-carbon, sustainable way?’ And I’m absolutely convinced the answer to that will be yes.”
The review was launched by Mr Ryan and Northern Ireland’s then minister for infrastructure Nichola Mallon in April 2021.
Mr Ryan said a Northern Ireland Executive would be needed to agree the full document, as some of the “big spending elements” are in that region.
A strategic environmental assessment is out for consultation and expected to be finalised next year, and rail freight analysis will be needed for Dublin Port, Rosslare and Limerick Junction.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning, Mr Ryan said a new “Atlantic rail corridor” would bring low-carbon transport for businesses.
The Green Party leader said: “Early parts of the last century, we probably had the best rail network in the world. We’ve let it lapse.
“We’ve lost lines, we’ve given up on rail freight. We don’t have connection to the north west. And what the report says is, we bring back rail. We bring back rail as a way of getting better balanced regional development.”
Mr Ryan said rail freight could be running “within the next year or two” and the Waterford-Rosslare and Claremorris-Athenry lines could reopen by the end of the decade, adding that they are “the missing pieces in the jigsaw”.
The plan also recommends connecting Belfast International Airport to the rail network.
For Northern Ireland, the total capital cost estimate in 2023 prices is £7.7 billion, which is approximately £0.31 billion per annum over a 25-year period.
The review was first established in 2021 by Ireland’s Environment Minister Eamon Ryan and former SDLP Stormont Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon.
However, with the powersharing institutions at Stormont currently not operating, there are no ministers in Northern Ireland to sign off on any recommendations.
Mr Eastwood said the rail review was one of the significant achievements of his party from the last term of devolved government.
He said: “Commissioning the review in co-operation with the Irish Government, we understood the immense practical benefits that investing in rail will have for people in the north and across our island.
“We now have a £30 billion rail restoration plan that will help decarbonise transport across Ireland, connect people and opportunities in communities that have been severed from economic investment for far too long and bring people across our island closer together.”
Mr Eastwood added: “I am particularly glad that the restoration of rail from Letterkenny to Derry and on to Portadown is a key recommendation of the review.
“The withdrawal of rail services in the west has left substantial scars on communities here that have never healed because the promised investment in roads infrastructure was abandoned for decades.
“This plan is a rededication to people in the west.”
Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said the report showed the need for “long overdue investment” in the rail network.
He added: “A high-speed rail service connecting Belfast, Dublin, Cork and other cities on the island would be a significant game changer for our transport infrastructure and economy.
“Extending rail networks to towns like Dungannon, Omagh and Strabane will be a much-needed boost to their local retail sectors by providing consumers with other transport options other than the car or bus.”
The Into the West lobby group welcomed the proposals, but said it had concerns over whether Stormont politicians would prioritise the plan.
Campaigner Steve Bradley told the BBC: “It is unacceptable that in 2023 there is such a large gap on the island’s rail network, especially involving such a significant regional city like Derry.
“If we are serious about the climate crisis, regional development and social justice – both north and south – then we really need to look at providing mass transport alternatives to the car.
“It will all come down to whether our elected politicians and the civil servants in Stormont feel strongly enough about rail – and that’s where we would have concerns.”